‘In the celebrity world, use others as your voice and you’ve already diluted your power.’ That’s the sage advice of Molly McPherson, an American PR strategist who has won a loyal following on TikTok since taking to the platform to share her analysis of celebrity PR firestorms.
McPherson’s calm, assured manner and her clairvoyant ability to make sense of celeb mishaps – in videos including ‘Why is Jennifer Aniston “so over cancel culture?”’ and ‘Decoding Drew Barrymore Apology Video’ – have made her irresistible to gossip-hungry Gen Zs on the platform, where she has racked up 470,000 followers and 7.1 million ‘likes’.
One popular clip with more than 600,000 views sees McPherson explain why Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner stayed silent during her split from pop star Joe Jonas in the autumn – even as speculation and gossip abounded about her actions in the relationship.
Turner gained the ‘upper hand’ with her discretion, while associates of Jonas gave press ‘fodder for criticism and speculation’. ‘Part of the reason Joe Jonas lost this whole PR battle is because even if people didn’t realise it was PR spin, they could sense it’s not coming from Joe,’ McPherson says in the video. Later in the clip, McPherson comments on widely circulated images of Turner appearing in public for a dinner date with Taylor Swift, who once dated Jonas. ‘Considering the shared history between the two, this dinner outing is one of the best PR [moves] ever. The girl power move sheds just enough light on the narrative surrounding the divorce, while adding just the right amount of shade!’
McPherson tells Spear’s over the phone that the general public ‘want to know how people behave’ and what happens ‘behind the scenes’ more than ever. ‘We now have digital technology in anyone’s hands to be able to investigate anyone,’ she says. ‘So whenever there’s a question of someone’s credibility, there are going to be plenty of people who are going to research and investigate.’
The craft of the spin doctor
Just as more tech-enabled amateur sleuths are looking into the actions and statements of those in the public eye, TikTok provides a forum for influencers to join the conversation about their favourite public figures. This can be seen as a continuation of a trend that developed in the Nineties, says Tim Maltin, founder of London-based firm Maltin PR. ‘Arguably, Tony Blair was one of the first prime ministers to govern by media,’ says Maltin. ‘One always remembers certain phrases like “Education, education, education”.’
But soon after the method increased in prominence, so did the internet – and, with it, opportunities to dissect the work of figures such as Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell. This left the public ‘more able to recognise’ the ‘craft of the spin doctor’, says PR guru Mark Borkowski, who, around the turn of the millennium, wrote a column for the Guardian’s website analysing notable PR manoeuvres. Campbell stepped back from the high-profile press secretary post for a role running communications and strategy behind the scenes, before events caught up with him and he resigned in 2003 over the Iraq weapons/David Kelly affair.
But in and of itself, knowing that a public figure is making use of PR advisers doesn’t count against them, Borkowski says. ‘I don’t think anybody in the world out there doesn’t think someone significant hasn’t got PR help. Everybody knows that every celebrity worth their salt has got a publicist.’
However, there is a golden rule. ‘Always tell the truth,’ says Maltin. ‘Where celebrities and corporates get into trouble is if they’re actually trying to put across a message that isn’t true. I think the public can smell that.’
As for McPherson, she has been surprised at some of the consequences of her own TikTok stardom: ‘People in the entertainment, the celebrity, the influencing, the media space contact me for work. So now I’m working with the people in the same industry that I’m talking about on TikTok.’ It just goes to show the power of good PR.