Susie Ferguson: Hello, kia ora, Susie Ferguson here. Welcome back to another episode of Brazen, and thanks for showing up when there’s so much going on at the moment.
I hope all is well with you and your bubble, and that life under lockdown isn’t wearing you down too much. You might notice that we’re releasing this episode a little late, and it’s all on its lonesome. Our podcast-making abilities are a little restricted right now, so instead of releasing two episodes a month, we’re just going to do what we can to get great conversations to you when we can.
We’re going to have to make some sacrifices in the flash-sounding audio department as well. I’m recording this right now in my home studio, well, it’s a blanket fort, really. I hope it sounds okay. But the conversations will continue to be exactly what they’ve always been; brazen women telling their stories on their terms.
Today’s guest is Charlotte McLauchlan. Charlotte was once described in the media as a “PR guru”. That means she’s got really good at making people and organisations look great, or sometimes just less shit. She’s been the head of communications for some major media organisations, like the studio that makes Australian Masterchef, and when we spoke to her, it was MediaWorks. She’s since left MediaWorks to work at RNZ. And as you’re about to hear, she didn’t set out to be a PR guru. She planned on becoming a journalist but, as is often the case, life had other ideas.
Now, just before we start, a couple of things for context. Charlotte’s going to talk about one of her main clients when she was just starting out in the UK, Coleen Rooney. Now if you don’t know who she is, give her a quick google. She’s a much-loved UK celebrity who became a public name as a teenager when she was outed by the media as the girlfriend of football star Wayne Rooney.
We also chat briefly about an Instagram sting Coleen pulled on another footballer’s wife. That made headlines all the way over here. Look that one up too, if you want to know more. Time now to hear from PR superstar Charlotte McLauchlan, who’s taking us right back to where it all began.
Charlotte McLauchlan: I spent all my teenage years wanting to be a journalist. I studied political science because I wanted to be Linda Clark. And in fact I’ve met Linda Clark and I told her that; she was slightly freaked out I think. Anyway. I went to university, as I said, did political science, left, went to London with a plan to be there for a couple of years and then come back and do a post-grad in journalism, and then I think I read a story about something that had happened and there was a sort of PR kind of character in the story, and I thought that it sounded quite interesting and thought perhaps that for a couple of years it might be quite a good thing to do in London. So I knocked on a few doors, got a very junior role in a PR agency, and that was that.
Susie: But how did that then become your career? How did that carry on?
Charlotte: I quite liked it, because it was kind of like being a journalist in that you were working with the media and crafting stories, but you also were able to work across clients, because I was agency-side at that stage, where you kind of got to know the commercial world as well, which I liked.
And I guess I was lucky in that I started off working with clients that were quite interesting and very media worthy, as it were. So it wasn’t like I was doing PR for dog food brands, or companies that had got themselves into an awful lot of trouble and were constantly firefighting. So I had a lot of fun. And I think when you’re in your 20s, having a job that’s fun is quite important.
Susie: Who were you working for at this stage?
Charlotte: So after probably the first two or three years I started working with the Rooneys, Wayne and Coleen. I was much more involved with Coleen at the time than I was with Wayne. Wayne was obviously even then a very big football star and I was way too junior and inexperienced to be left to deal with him, so my boss dealt with him.
But Coleen, whilst very famous, was very unpopular, and so it became a situation where they needed somebody to try and manage her through her unpopularity, because she was pretty much on the front page of the tabloids every single day for months on end in a really unflattering way. And we decided that that attention on her could be turned into something more positive. So there was a kind of ‘turn the Titanic’ opportunity which was great fun and meant that I learnt an awful lot about how tabloid media works.
Susie: So just give us a sense of the timeframe. Is this before they were married?
Charlotte: Yes. Long before. So this was when they were in their early 20s. Goodness, not even, cause I went to her 21st. So when I started working with her she would have been 19.
Susie: Because Wayne Rooney became a very famous footballer very young.
Charlotte: In his teens.
Susie: And I think she was still at school when he became, yeah.
Charlotte: And there’s that very famous first picture of her in her school uniform where she’s identified as his girlfriend. And it’s a really unflattering photograph. And I think that actually that photograph probably did her a great disservice because the decision that the British public made about her and who she was and what her background was and how she looked, defined her for years after that.
Susie: So what did you do? In a circumstance like that, how do you turn the Titanic?
Charlotte: You go straight to the core of who the person actually is. And for a long time you have to work with that person to convince them that the Titanic can be turned. She was photographed relentlessly all of the time wherever she went, and of course when you have a suite of photographs to choose from and you’re a picture editor at a tabloid and you’ve got a narrative that’s already running, you choose the most unflattering one.
So the first job is to convince the person that it can be done. And the second job of course is to then find the right way to do it. I’m showing my age now, but this is before social media, so this is before you have the opportunity to tell the story on your own platform in your own way. You had to use the media.
Susie: And when she told her story, what happened?
Charlotte: She wanted to know before we did the interview what we thought she should say. You know, the classic thing, the PR advisor, what should I say? And what we thought she should say is what, who she wanted to be and what she thought was important and what her values were. It came not long after there’d been a bit of a scandal about Wayne, which meant that there were a lot of questions about that, but she handled those really really well.
Susie: Was this the prostitute scandal?
Charlotte: That was the prostitute scandal, yep. She was very true to herself, which is the best advice you can ever give anyone. Be true to who you are. And the things in her life that were important to her were her family and her relationships with her friends, and that came across loud and clear in the interview, and of course we then did a photoshoot to accompany the interview, which meant that there was a different set of pictures.
So these images were a look at Coleen in a way that hadn’t been seen before and that really helped the story, and after that it really changed for her. Because first of all she became a lot more comfortable with the media, she was happy to do interviews and be part of the conversation about who she was. It wasn’t probably much longer after that where she then was in Vogue, and that was a huge turning point for her. And that was less I think about the way she looked and more about the place that she had in the cultural zeitgeist, that she had become this kind of fashionista but in a way that Victoria Beckham, say, at that time wasn’t.
It was an accessible thing. So it was just a really interesting thing to be part of and to watch change over, yeah, quite a few years.
Susie: Cause I guess she was really young when all of this started. The British tabloid press, certainly at the time, could be pretty rabid.
Charlotte: Oh, they were.
Susie: And so if you’ve got people potentially jumping out of bushes to take your picture, so that they make sure it’s an unflattering angle or whatever, like you say, how did that impact upon her as a person?
Charlotte: This was really before the conversation about bullying in the media or mental health and the way that we now are able to talk about mental health had started.
Susie: Or even the phone-hacking scandal, it was before any of that stuff.
Charlotte: It was, it was well before that. So there was, I suppose, an expectation from probably the British public, fairly or unfairly, that she had been given this ‘privileged’ – I say that in inverted commas – privileged situation where she was very wealthy by virtue of being the partner of a very very wealthy footballer, and that she was invited to nice parties and she got to wear beautiful clothes, and that she shouldn’t complain.
So even though in her mind and, you know, private conversations that she was no doubt having, it would have affected her, it just wasn’t the thing to say, This is not okay, this is affecting me, in a way that I would say now would be very very different. Very different.
Susie: Looking back on that time now, and the way that the media operated, do you think there’s something inherently misogynistic, or it automatically puts often a woman, often young, on the back foot, and is that fair?
Charlotte: I think that it’s certainly unfair, because I don’t believe that if she had been the famous footballer and Wayne had been the partner there would have been the same attention.
I mean, picture editors will very explicitly say, maybe not today but they certainly did, Women sell newspapers. So women on the front page of newspapers sell better than men do.
And so you then have to find women who for whatever reason, whether it’s because they’re beautiful or ugly, the people on the front pages of newspapers are going to make sure that they sell. And I think that is unfair on women, I absolutely do, but it’s something that, again because of the time and the era I suppose that this was all happening, we just never talked about it. It was what it was. And it wasn’t challenged.
Susie: And so to do that change, to turn the Titanic, you do these interviews, you have a new set of pictures that are doing the rounds, or are available at least, it’s work, but is there fun as well that goes along with this?
Charlotte: Yes, and I think that for me it was fun because, going back to my desire to be a journalist, I was in the thick of the British media. Because she was so, so desired. I mean, I used to get, god, 30, 50 emails a day with requests for her, from journalists wanting to interview her, people wanting to invite her to things, it was insane.
But also I got to do some pretty cool stuff. You’re hanging out with people who have got a lot of money. I got to fly in private jets. I went to her 21st birthday party which was like something out of, I don’t know what. And the whole time I was doing these things I was reminding myself, I’m just a kid from Wellington Girls’ College who went to Canterbury University, what the hell am I doing here? Really, what am I doing here, you know? And so, yeah, I had some pretty amazing experiences. I always think it’s quite nice making new friends, as it were, and so that part of it was quite interesting and fun as well.
Susie: Would you describe her at the time as a friend?
Charlotte: No, probably not, because I think ultimately because she’d had such a rough start, and because she took a long time to convince that that could be different, and I think that sort of Liverpudlian family, you know they really create a big wall around the people that they trust. And I admire that. I liked that about her. And so it was hard to get in. She wasn’t someone who just opened the door and said, Right, I trust you. It wasn’t like that at all. Not at all.
Susie: I guess the tabloids were still taking pictures on their own terms. You ended up in one of them.
Charlotte: I did, yes, and it was very embarrassing because we had been at a function in London, and we were in a car leaving the function.
This is one of also those kind of pinch-me moments where we were careering through late at night London in a very nice car absolutely surrounded by paparazzi on motorbikes, and every time we would stop at a red light they would get off their motorbikes, this is why they choose motorbikes as opposed to cars as their method of transport, and then their cameras would slam up against the glass of the window of the car and you would just be sitting in the car with all of these flashes going off. It was really quite surreal. And yeah, it’s scary.
Susie: What do you do?
Charlotte: Well you can’t really do anything, because you obviously can’t get out of the car because there’ll be pictures of that, so you just have to try and make sure that you’ve got the right angle so that you look pretty in the photo, I don’t know.
Because you know at that point that you’re in the photo, there’s going to be a photo and you’re in it. Anyway. Unfortunately we’d made a very bad decision in hindsight, that we would get McDonalds, Coleen quite liked McDonalds as do I, and so we got a McDonalds burger each and so of course when the cameras were up against the glass they were taking photos of us eating our burgers.
And so there’s this picture that exists, it was a big picture too, sadly for me, in a tabloid magazine, where she looks quite elegant eating her burger. I look horrendous. Horrendous. Absolutely horrendous. My mouth is at full openness, the burger is sort of half in my mouth, it’s awful.
Susie: Photos of people talking or eating are usually not good. Do you have a copy of the picture?
Charlotte: I do, yeah, I do. I’m quite proud of it now, it’s quite a moment in my life.
Susie: I guess it’s quite a memory to have with the leadup to it being the paparazzi. And I just kind of think about, if that happened once or twice to you, what does it do to someone’s psyche to always know that when you leave you’re going to be in a car and you’re going to be under siege.
Charlotte: When I was with her, we were constantly surrounded by photographers, that was just one of many times, I never got used to it of course, ever, cause I just found it inherently uncomfortable, but she did.
It was almost as though she didn’t notice them. And there was another amazing pinch-me moment where I was at, god this is really bringing back some memories now, where we were at a hotel, the Mandarin Oriental in London which is a beautiful hotel opposite Hyde Park, and we were going to an event and I’d met her at the hotel, and we were in the lift coming down from her room, and everybody sort of fluffs around famous people.
There’s always a million people, either the public wanting photos or autographs, or just staff of the hotel, “is everything all right?” and “what can I do?”. And we walked into the lobby and people were sort of looking at her, and obviously there’s no photographers in the lobby, they’re not allowed in, and the doorman, beautiful red coat, lovely black hat, beautiful old London hotel, opened the door, and there would have been probably 80 paparazzi photographers just standing outside the hotel. And the lights going off, it’s crazy. It really really is crazy.
A PR person who had done a lot of celebrity publicity many years before me gave me some great advice, how to avoid being in the photographs, which is to always stay in front. Cause if you’re in front, the photographers are going to go round you. If you’re behind them you’re always in shot.
Susie: That’s a good tip.
Charlotte: Yeah, it’s a good tip. I didn’t always manage to successfully do it. So there’s a few more photographs, the burgers one, there’s a few others that I’ve got stored in a box somewhere where I’m in a sort of sea of photographers, I’m small and so was Coleen, so it’s scary, they’re big guys. They’re big guys.
Susie: It sounds like she became pretty savvy pretty quickly.
Charlotte: Unbelievably so. Unbelievably so. Very street smart.
Susie: And bringing it up to more recent times, what did you think about the sting that she did on Instagram?
Charlotte: Look, what I would say about that is that it’s very her. She always had a very strong sense of what was right and wrong. I believe that she wouldn’t have done that without advice. So I think that she’s a very strong girl, and she would have wanted to do it, I don’t believe she would have been put up to doing it by anyone who works with her. And she would have fought hard to be able to do it, but she wouldn’t have done it, I don’t believe, completely randomly without advice, particularly on the legal side.
I actually texted her after it happened, and I hadn’t heard from her for quite a few years, and we had a few nice texts back and forth, cause I said to her, this is making the news in New Zealand, you know, it’s a big story here too. And she said something kind of wry, like, yes it’s been busy, or the PR people have been busy or something quite funny.
I don’t know what I think of it. I don’t know Rebecca Vardy at all. And in some ways I feel sorry for Rebecca Vardy, because now she is the victim of a massive onslaught. But I also, knowing Coleen and also understanding that if you’ve got a friend who you believe is leaking stuff to the media about you, you want to expose it. And I think, I kind of get it. I kind of get it.
Susie: Do you think Coleen came out of it pretty well though?
Charlotte: I do, yeah. But there’s this sort of inherent love for her from the British public. And I think that she’s a bit of an underdog. She was the poor man’s Victoria Beckham, as the media used to say. There is this sort of fondness for her, and there’s a lot of people in Britain who want to see her do well and not be wronged by people.
Susie: Is she more liked than Wayne, do you think?
Charlotte: Is she more liked than Wayne?
Susie: Cause he’s got himself caught up in quite a few scandals, and she’s sort of stood by her man quite a lot of the time.
Charlotte: She has. Yeah, she probably is more liked, I think. And I think, but obviously, the thing that’s always hung over her head is the kind of, what is her talent, whereas he can answer that question pretty robustly.
Susie: You have these amazing experiences while you’re working in London. At what point do you get back to New Zealand?
Charlotte: So we left London in 2010, and we travelled for quite a long time through South America. And then we moved to Sydney. By the end of my time in London I’d actually left the Coleen role and started working in TV.
Susie: What were you doing there?
Charlotte: I worked for the BBC for a couple of years, and then for Channel 4. So after those two roles, we moved to Sydney, I started working for a big production company there called Endemol Shine. And had my first baby in Sydney, and then moved to New Zealand in 2014.
We would have stayed in Sydney probably a bit longer than we did, but we also, my husband and I both got job opportunities that we knew probably wouldn’t come up again any time soon, so it was kind of time to make the jump. But now that I’m in New Zealand I’m pleased that I’m in New Zealand.
Susie: And so now, you’re currently in MediaWorks, which over a large number of years has had a bunch of issues that I guess you’ve had to fight some fires on?
Charlotte: Yes. That’s true, and probably more fires than I anticipated when I accepted the job.
Susie: Do you quite like doing that, though?
Charlotte: I do, yeah. I do.
Susie: Does it take over your life a bit?
Charlotte: It can do, but I think that on balance if I look at four and a half years of MediaWorks, there would only be a handful of times where I have literally been taken out for days on end and can’t focus on anything else. That doesn’t happen that often.
Susie: When were those days?
Charlotte: Probably under a previous CEO, was probably a busier time. Yep. And that was pretty relentless.
Susie: So is this around things like the axing of Campbell Live, and the resignation of people like Hilary Barry?
Charlotte: So I wasn’t there for the axing of Campbell Live, thank goodness. I joined not long after it had happened, and certainly there were a lot of after-effects of it, but the actual axing had happened prior to my joining. But yes, the Hilary Barry departure. It wasn’t long before Mark himself resigned.
Susie: How do you think women are treated by the media here?
Charlotte: I still find it interesting that our print and obviously now digital media don’t pay for stories. So there’s not that same aggressive pursuit of celebrity scoops, and I think it’s the celebrity component of news media that can start to stray into that kind of more sexist territory.
I think that media generally is a lot more mindful now of the way women are treated, and the way women are reported on, and even little things, you know, where a woman’s family life in a story is more likely to be referred to near the top of the story than a man’s. Things like that will take a long time to change globally, but I think that because we don’t have the celebrity tabloid culture I think it’s a very different beast to the UK. A very different beast.
Susie: What about situations in your job where I guess there may be comments or complaints that come in about some of the female presenters? What kind of things have you seen written, have you dealt with on the phone?
Charlotte: Absolutely without question the large majority of complaints and commentary about women on television is about their appearance. Without question.
And those complaints and comments are never made about men, or very rarely, very very rarely made about men. You’ll know of a very interesting experiment, I suppose you’d call it, that was done in Australia, where Karl Stephanovic, a Channel 9 presenter, wore the same suit every day for a year and nobody noticed. And that for me was incredibly powerful as a message about what it’s like to be a female on television.
I think that we have an amazing group of strong women on television at MediaWorks and at Three who are superb at defending themselves and do not need me at all. Kanoa has been amazing, on several occasions Hilary Barry when she was with us was amazing, and I note even recently. There’s some strong women, and I know it affects them, but they deal with it incredibly well. And that’s the way it should be dealt with. It’s not a company thing, it has to be about the person.
Susie: How hard is it to deal with the sort of job you do, the kind of work you do, and still at some point get home to see your kids?
Charlotte: I think, like all women who work, and I don’t think it matters whether you’re dealing in crisis or whether you are a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor or any other function that you have in your working life, there’s always that guilt, right.
And you have weeks where you feel like you’re a terrible mother and you have weeks where you feel like you’re a terrible employee. The way I reconcile that in my brain is that as long as I have equal amounts of feeling like a terrible employee and a terrible mother I’ve probably just about got it right.
When any job gets very intense and you are sucked into a vortex of work where you really struggle to think about anything else, you obviously have to rely on support, and I obviously have a very supportive husband who does absolutely as much parenting as I do, so we don’t have a kind of situation where I’m expected to do more parenting because I’m the mum, and that makes a huge difference.
And I think it’s just also about forgiving yourself, and understand that yes, these periods are going to be pretty intense and when they are intense you’re not going to be as present or available to your kids. But that doesn’t last forever. And so you take the time when you can, and certainly when it’s not as busy I make sure that I take the opportunity to be a worse employee and spend more time with my kids, and try and be a more present mum.
Susie: What else, I suppose I was wondering about
Charlotte: Oh, the Jewish thing.
Susie: Talking about Judaism.
Charlotte: I don’t remember how we were told as children that we were Jewish. I don’t really particularly remember any conversations about it, but it was just a sort of known thing, one of those things you know as a kid.
And I think I’ve always been interested in it, but I think that as I’ve got older I’ve realised that I identify with it culturally more and more. I certainly can’t call myself a religious Jew, but I think there’s a lot of Jewish people that identify with it culturally as opposed to religiously, and I certainly do that. I see it as a huge part of my identity.
It’s matriarchal, so it comes through your mum, and it’s only my mother that’s Jewish, my father’s not. And I think that my mother is probably slightly surprised, and also secretly would never tell me this herself, quite likes the fact that I’m so interested in it.
I just find it quite fascinating, and I think there’s some lovely values that are attached to it. To me it’s part of who I am.
Susie: This is kind of totally outside your work remit or anything, but I guess reconnecting with your Jewishness, when you watch the TV news or you see stuff on social media about the alt right and sometimes Nazi iconography’s being used, what does that say to you? What’s your reaction?
Charlotte: Terror. Little bit, yeah. Because I think now we live in a world where whenever there’s chaos, and I think we are in a state chaos globally at the moment, the more extreme versions of anything can take hold very quickly, because people look to it as a way of controlling a situation. And I think that if there were to ever be a scenario where we could end up with some very terrifying people in charge of a country or an area of a country even, where we could find ourselves in a scenario where terrible decisions are made, this is now. I think.
Susie: It’s not a very cheerful place to end.
Charlotte: Sorry, no.
Susie: No, that’s okay, I asked you the question. But I guess for New Zealand, having lived in lots of different places, having done a lot of travel, does New Zealand feel a bit like, it’s home, but does it also feel a bit like the lifeboat for the world?
Charlotte: I think as people who live in New Zealand and are able to live in New Zealand we should feel quite lucky, for sure. We have a profile as a country that we probably haven’t had before. And I think that people will look to New Zealand and think, yeah, that’s not a bad little place to live.
Susie: Charlotte McLauchlan finishing up our conversation there with some reflections that I’ve got to say feel especially relevant right now.
Not a bad little place to live indeed.
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In the meantime, check out the website, and keep safe and well in your bubbles.
Brazen’s hosted by me, Susie Ferguson, and was created by me, Lou O’Reilly, Vic MacLennan, and David Cormack.
Brazen’s produced and edited by Melody Thomas, and the engineers are William Saunders and John Pilley.
Artwork by Pepper Raccoon.
All transcriptions are done by Emma Hart.
Ka kite anō.