My Big Break: Fiona Duff, owner, Duff Publicity

FIONA Duff runs Duff Publicity, an independent PR agency based in Edinburgh

When did working in the media first start becoming an ambition?

I think I had always been interested in the media; getting involved with school then student publications.

At Aberdeen University, during my first year, I joined the editorial team of the underground paper, Campus, along with three other freshers (including Nicky Campbell and Allan Robb who both went on to work for BBC Radio 5 live). Our first edition resulted in a writ, for defamation, which was soon enough dropped, I think following an apology. While the others left, I carried on writing and helping put the paper together – quite literally, as we would cut features out and glue them onto A3 sheets.

For a short time, I worked for a free paper in Aberdeen after leaving university, but a lot of that involved sales which really wasn’t my ‘cup of tea’.

With little else to do, I went to a party in London in 1983 and didn’t return to Scotland for 15 years. My first full-time job in London was working as a totally useless PA for Jim Wallace, then the newly-elected MP for Orkney & Shetland.

What was your first ‘media job’?

After having a few interviews for media jobs – which I realised half-way through were not right for me – I applied to work for Peter Thompson Associates.

At that time, Peter was the busiest and best-known theatrical PR in London, with Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber among his clients (as well as, rather strangely, Paul Raymond).

We clicked immediately and I worked for him for four years. Peter didn’t work like many PRs do these days. He was rude to journalists and they adored him. He had this knack of being able to persuade people, such as Maggie Smith and Richard Harris, to talk to the media, even though they hated doing interviews. He managed to get the sort of coverage for productions that other companies would just dream about.

The ‘Associates’ bit of his company title was a bit of a misnomer as, most of the time, it was just the two of us, working flat-out but having such a laugh as well. I was pretty much thrown in, at the deep end, having to talk to the performers and producers as well as arrange interviews, photographs and write up releases.

I realised from other friends who worked in the business and financial PR sector that I was not particularly going to make a lot of money working in entertainment, but – boy! – it was such fun.

Describe, briefly, how your career unfolded between your first media job and where you are now

After leaving Peter Thompson Associates in 1989, I worked for Laister Dickson (now LD Publicity) who were music PRs with clients such as The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, INXS and Paul McCartney. I worked with Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, so wasn’t really getting into the Rock ‘n’ Roll stuff that my colleagues were.

One of the jobs I did was the publicity for The Wall At The Wall – Roger Waters and various extremely well-known musicians performing Pink Flloyd’s The Wall in what had been no-man’s land in Berlin between the east and west. It was then (and may still be) one of the biggest live concerts ever in Europe.

When you think that there were no mobile phones in those days – there were a couple of walkie-talkies – I had to run around the site to track down journalists and performers. The point at which I really wished mobile phones had been invented was when I saw Jerry Hall and Marianne Faithfull sitting in a trailer, wearing rollers and having a cup of tea. It was the first time that they had met and the photo could have made me a fortune.

I then went to work for Freud Communications, which was a very different company than the huge professional one that it is these days. Matthew offered me the job as managing director after I did a particularly good job of the Hard Rock Cafe’s 25th anniversary and a Channel 4 programme but I decided to set up my own company. If I stayed, I could have made a fortune, which seems to be a common theme in my career.

I had my own company in London for five years and mainly worked on theatre and television programmes, many of which were for Hat Trick (Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Room 101, etc) and Talkback (They Think It’s All over, Smith & Jones, etc). A TV producer friend said that if I called it Duff Publicity he would definitely employee me. He is now Graham Norton’s business partner and I am still awaiting that call.

I moved to Edinburgh in 1998 and worked at The Scotsman, part-time, commissioning features, travel and whatever for a couple of years before restarting my PR company. Without the huge pool of entertainment work that there is in London, I widened my net and have done PR for restaurants, law companies, hairdressers, as well as the occasional theatre show, and lots for the Edinburgh Fringe.

Any particularly big breaks along the way?

It was probably Paul Merton’s agent getting in touch with me about doing his PR after the third series of HIGNFY. I went along to the Press launch of series four, where I met my first husband (Harry Thompson, who was the producer) and the Hat Trick owners, Denise O’Donoghue and Jimmy Mulville, who went on to employ me on several programmes.

Who would you like to thank more than most?

It has to be Peter Thompson – he took me on despite the fact I had no experience in publicity and PR but merely on the basis that I made him laugh… I think.

What do you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

Always carry a camera, and if someone offers you the job as managing director, take it…