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Sat 9 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Extreme makeover

In order to strengthen Dubai's image, PR guru Max Clifford believes that the emirate needs to go back to basics.

Extreme makeover
Extreme makeover
Extreme makeover
Clifford, whose list of clients includes tabloid favourites such as Kerry Katona and Simon Cowell, feels that Dubai ‘needs a much softer image’ than it’s currently got.
Extreme makeover
Clifford, whose list of clients includes tabloid favourites such as Kerry Katona and Simon Cowell, feels that Dubai ‘needs a much softer image’ than it’s currently got.
Extreme makeover
Clifford represented US sports star OJ Simpson during his murder trial.
Extreme makeover
With Indian film actress Shilpa Shetty; he currently represents around 15 clients ranging from brands, firms to individuals.

Last year the Dubai backlash began and the emirate made headlines for all the wrong reason. In order to rebuild its image PR guru Max Clifford believes that Dubai needs to go back to basics.

Max Clifford is a man who knows the power of a headline. In 1986 he made his name with the now infamous ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster' headline in The Sun.

The story, orchestrated by Clifford, turned out to be untrue but it achieved its goals: Starr became one of the most talked about celebrities in the UK, the headline entered the annals of tabloid notoriety and Clifford earned himself the reputation as one the shrewdest operators in the business.

As we enter a new decade, Dubai now ranks as one most talked about and headline grabbing attractions in the world.

A quick check on search engine Google reveals that Dubai currently generates 63.4 million results. To put this into perspective, Britney Spears has 61.9 million, Paris Hilton has 42.3 million, Tiger Woods has 57.7 million, the Great Depression has only 21.5 million and even Lehman Brothers only generates a paltry 5.4 million results.

For much of the last decade Dubai's coverage was largely positive but by 2009, if the UK press is anything to go by, the backlash began to take hold.

"A city with neither charm nor character," was Germaine Greer's verdict in The Guardian daily.

"The dark side of Dubai," screamed the headline in The Independent as it claimed that expatriates were living in their cars and ending up in jail.

The BBC followed up with an undercover investigation into the supposed conditions of a Dubai labour camp and Rod Liddle wrote a vitriolic piece in The Sunday Times dismissing the emirate as a "foul city" full of "vulgar affluence".

However, Clifford believes that the backlash was to be expected as the emirate's image was built around money and excess, which is no longer appealing during one of the biggest global recessions since the Great Depression.

So would he take on the task of helping to overhaul the emirate's image if Dubai Inc came calling?

"Yes potentially," he says quickly, "providing what they wanted I thought was achievable and providing I could work with them. There is no point in me coming up with concepts if they don't agree."

If he was offered the task, Clifford believes there are a number of areas Dubai needs to address if it is to live up to its ambitions of becoming a long-term global tourism hub.

"I think it needs a much softer image than it's got. It is very much concrete, vast hotels and everything is money, money, money."

He believes Dubai needs to work out what its unique selling point is beyond tall towers and huge hotels.

"It is also very much about value. If you come to Dubai what makes it unique and what makes it uniquely attractive? What is going to make people be there and that they can only get in Dubai?"

The influence of star power is something Clifford also knows a lot about, having begun his career in the 1960s handling PR for a then unknown  band called The Beatles and going on to work with global icons like Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando and tabloid favourites such as Kerry Katona, Jade Goody and Indian film actress Shilpa Shetty.

He believes that Dubai should try and harness some of this star power and use it to help soften its image and improve its appeal.

"What you need to do is to have people there that the media are interested in. If Simon Cowell, who is one of my clients, had a place there [he could] then be seen to be doing interviews from Dubai in the UK or America.

"Because he is seen as very successful and someone who could afford to live anywhere he wanted then there would be tremendous media coverage, not just a quick burst but for 12 months of the year," he envisages.

The core to turning around Dubai's image and countering the backlash, believes Clifford, is to focus less on the grandiose buildings and record breaking achievements and more on the quieter and unique elements of the city.

He imagines scenes such as coffee by a traditional Arabian café, desert adventures, romantic dinners on a dhow by the creek and cocktails by a pristine beach with a colourful sunset. Of course, sprinkled with a large dose of star power.

Diversity and consistency would also be high up on Clifford's to-do list for Dubai as he believes the way in which Dubai handles its PR and marketing would need to be reviewed.The big film, music and sports events taking place need to use the stars that are brought to Dubai more creatively, he says, and the media coverage generated should be expanded beyond just publicising the event and should benefit the city's image as a whole.

He believes that when sports stars are in town they should be interviewed not just by sports publications but by international celebrity magazines and the photo opportunities should be used to positively showcase Dubai to the world.

"So they are interviewing Andy Murray but not about tennis but what he loves about Dubai and lovely pictures of him on vacation and him in that location.

"It is a much wider brief," he suggests.

And that sort of soft focus coverage needs to be consistent throughout the year and not just anchored around big events, he says.

"You have to get that for 12 months of the year. It is not just one burst and you also have to get other people there to say how lovely it is and how they had a real beautiful holiday," he adds.

Another fundamental issue Clifford believes that needs to be addressed is value for money.

"The impression you get coming to Dubai from anyone and everyone I know is that it costs a fortune. That isn't going to work. If you are going to be successful you have to get that much wider audience and much wider social demographic.

"You have got to think what have we got to do to give something wonderful which is affordable for us and affordable to them."

Indeed, a recent Arabian Business poll showed that that more than 60 percent of those who took part believe that fewer visitors are coming to Dubai because of its expensive image.

A total of 62 percent of the 600-plus votes believe that hotel prices are a major issue and need to be reduced. A further 23 percent believe Dubai needs to widen its appeal beyond its image as a luxury destination.

Despite the recession, Clifford says he has never been busier and he believes that a widespread industry move away from expensive advertising may be good for the PR business.

"It is just incredibly busy and we are very lucky. I know people have cut back on advertising [but] they come to us because they are not prepared to spend two million pounds on an advertising campaign but they will spend 500,000 pounds over a couple of years on a PR campaign," he claims.

Clifford currently represents around 15 clients, ranging from champagne brands to property companies to movies and books to global celebrities such as Simon Cowell.

However, Clifford is quick to point out that he has never had to chase work.

"I have never asked to do anything ever. I have never pitched for business and I am very lucky," he emphasises.

Clifford represented US sports star OJ Simpson during his murder trial and tried to rehabilitate Rebecca Loos' image in the eyes of the UK public after she claimed to have had an affair with the footballer David Beckham. However, when Michael Jackson was found innocent of child abuse charges Clifford said he would not represent the King of Pop as "it would be the hardest job in PR after [representing] Saddam Hussein."

Clifford also turned down a $2m offer from the Nigerian authorities to help try and improve their image.

"I was approached and I didn't do it because they wouldn't agree to open everything up and show it as it really is. Which said to me that they are still hiding things and covering things," he says of the incident.

It is doubtful that Nigeria will benefit much from the coverage it is getting at present by being linked to the Christmas Day attempted suicide bombing in the US. However, it has become clear that Dubai has benefited in some ways from the media battering it received during the debt crisis last year.

Some tourists, for example, were quick to see the headlines as an opportunity to save cash on the yearly quest for the sun. The Hotels.com website reports that the announcement by Dubai World led to a 570 percent surge in online searches for hotels in Dubai.

"If you are after a bargain, Dubai will be a place to go in 2010. The state-backed Dubai World debt announcement at the end of November has triggered a price war in hotel room rates to stimulate demand," claims a recent report by the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).

Stars may no longer have to claim to have snacked on household pets to get coverage but Clifford believes the system still works and he points to the example of Susan Boyle - a unknown Scottish singer who became a number one selling artist in the US after appearing on the reality show ‘Britain's Got Talent' - as prove that headlines still equal success.

"The right person still attracts and puts bums on seats," he says with a passion.

Whether Dubai will choose Clifford as the "right person" remains to be seen.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

SR 10 years ago

I hope this new decade will see the back of substance lacking spin, irrational exuberance, untalented celebrities and normal people trying to be untalented celebrities. I hope we can have a return to a world where good values, kindness, servitude, and humility is aspired to; rather than this VIP illusion people seem to have bought into. With all the quick cash; apartment flipping, money hungry hoards out of this city; perhaps this is possible. The last thing Dubai needs is some spin doctor trying to build another false image on nothing but perception. Dubai has substance, it does not need spin. Go home Clifford, we don’t need your kind here!

BRANDO 10 years ago

All that is BASIC common sense, why would someone need to pay £500,000 for that ? Lots of people have been offering that advice for free ! ps, Good post SR

Joe P 10 years ago

Susan Boyle, "an unknown Scottish singer" who became the number one selling artist in the US does not prove that 'headlines equal success' What it proves is that someone with phenomenal talent achieved well-deserved success!!!!! Success built on spin will never be sustainable.

Peter Cooper 10 years ago

Sign him up and listen to what he says.