Could there be marketing method in Evgeny Lebedev’s madness?
On the face of it, appointing George Osborne editor of the London Evening Standard is rather bizarre. He has barely any journalism experience. He’s also a sitting MP with a string of lucrative side lines. It all begs the question, would he even have the time to do a job that most people regard as all-consuming?
We’re not talking a one day a week consulting job here, like the one he’s just taken with BlackRock that pays him £650,000-a-year for one whole day a week. BlackRock is one of the world’s largest shadow banks, that at least sits well with a former chancellor relegated to the backbenches.
But look at it through the prism of PR, though, and you can see the benefits to both parties.
The appointment has already brought Osborne out of the shadows and given him a PR amphetamine shot in the arm. He’ll be able to cash in even more on the speaker circuit that’s already earned him £800,000 for just 15 speeches given in the last year.
If the furore over his appointment dies down and he’s allowed to formally take up his position as editor, just imagine the opportunities he would have to get back at the prime minister for sacking him. She must be quaking in her leopard print wellies.
As for his new boss, he could be playing a smart game after all.
The Lebedevs, Evgeny and his father Alexander, bought the loss-making Standard for £1 in 2009 and brought it back into profitability, but the job of keeping the paper in the black is a huge challenge.
The Standard is free so most of its revenue is dependent on print advertising. That’s a market in decline by about 20% annually. The Standard’s online version is growing, but newspapers generally are finding that digital advertising isn’t rising fast enough to compensate for falling print ad revenues. Plus, they’ve been hit hard by the rise in the cost of newsprint after the pound’s post-Brexit plunge.
Ironic, then, that Brexit could be the Standard’s secret success weapon. London may be generally left-leaning with a Labour mayor, Saddiq Khan, but Londoners voted against leaving the EU. Remainers took 28 London boroughs with 2.2 million votes to Brexiters’ five boroughs totalling 1.5 million votes.
What better than to appoint a pro-Remain editor to reinforce the Standard’s brand as the paper that understands Londoners, speaks for Londoners, votes with Londoners?
By embracing the Remain sensibilities of the capital, the Russians hope to shore up their paper’s capital assets. Lebedev senior wasn’t dubbed ‘the spy who came in for the gold’ for nothing.
They might have had the case of Weight Watchers International in mind. In 2015 the company’s stock more than doubled after the announcement that Oprah Winfrey was buying 10% of the business, joining its board and collaborating in its marketing. Winfrey’s battles with her weight are well known. Even so, her appointment had raised nothing but eyebrows before the share price rose so encouragingly.
The trend for using celebrities to boost brands is so commonplace it has even crept into academia. Last year, one Oxford college announced a star-studded list of appointments. Lady Margaret Hall’s principal, the former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, said the 11-strong line up of celebrities including Emma Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tenant would connect students ‘with their worlds’. And presumably attract funding into the bargain.
In politics, the trend led to David Cameron appointing Kirstie Allsop as housing adviser - a clear case of wallpapering over the cracks if ever there was one.
So what if there’s a hoo-ha about the Osborne’s appointment? So what if he has no journalism experience? The Lebedevs obviously believe he has the PR chops to invigorate their London title and he’s a man who speaks their language - the language of international finance.
It’s jobs for the boys, too. Osborne’s best buddy Geordie Greig, current editor of the Mail on Sunday and former Standard editor himself, still sits on the board of the Standard. And, of course, there’s the question of independence. Can a sitting MP subject to the Tory whip truly offer independent journalistic leadership?
Meanwhile, the paper’s celebrity-driven content will continue as normal. The latest obsession is celebrities on 'poverty tourism' larks to highlight London’s escalating homeless crisis as the city’s number of rough sleepers has doubled in the past five years.
Recently they pictured Instagrammer and Do Something For Nothing founder, Dave Burt, talking to a homeless man to promote a “photowalk” planned for March 25. According to Burt, influential social media people will carry out acts of kindness and share them. In other words, celebrities will aim to boost their caring credentials by sharing voyeuristic selfies with their millions of fans.
The Standard appears to have taken over the role of the State in providing for the homeless. Its Dispossessed Fund, set up in 2010, has raised £16 million. It’s not the sort of budget Osborne’s used to but maybe he’ll boost the coffers with his own cash, just to show how much he has Londoners’ interests at heart.
When we were working on the PR for Lord John Bird, the founder of The Big Issue, David Cameron was all over Bird like a rash in his efforts to have him prop up his flimsy, now defunct, Big Society idea.
Cameron's concept was always just smoke and mirrors, as history has proven. Can Osborne’s editorship prove more substantial?