The absolutely fabulous PR girls' message is as old as the hills: stand by your man

Daaaarling, they're Absolutely Fabulous: Sophie, Sarah, Aurelia . . . so beautiful, so talented, so discreet. They can throw a party, spin a line, get you on the cover of Hello! (or the Guardian, or the Telegraph) and still have time to make an appearance at a little boy's birthday party. Effortlessly glamorous and successful, they seem never to court the blinding wattage of public attention, yet somehow manage to walk backwards into the limelight. No wonder they get Prince Charming (or at least Prince Edward) and the Man Who Holds The Nation's Purse Strings. (OK, Aurelia didn't bag her Andy, but perhaps she did the U-turn, not him.) Who could resist these women who always put their best foot forward - and make sure you do the same?

Not I. Since last summer, I've liaised with Sarah Macaulay, whose firm Hobsbawm Macaulay runs the PR for the New Statesman. I've seen Sarah in action, and it is a wonder to behold. She charms ministers, disarms critics, prods the Great and the Good to move and shake for her cause. She strokes the egos of her clients while encouraging them to look beyond the instant gratification of a PR coup. With the coolness of a Machiavelli she plots gameplans and masterminds meetings that ensure poor form does not obscure great substance - and sometimes that poor substance is packaged in dazzling form. With the fervour of an evangelical preacher she spreads the message that her product - man, woman or mag - is the best.

This talent for long-term image-building - canny packaging, gospel-preaching and boundless patience - makes the PR woman an invaluable ally in an era when image is paramount. For Edward and the royal family, Sophie can help revive the romance of Di and bury the troubles of divorce, slipping popularity and Fergie. For Gordon Brown, Sarah can help dilute the dourness, hint at the family man, and hold out hope for a razzmatazz wedding to warm the hearts and heal the rifts. In both cases, the medium is so good, it has become the message: Sophie and Sarah no longer merely facilitate the photo op but have stepped into the frame - standing beside her man as she shows off her engagement ring; or sitting beside him, with other people's children at their feet.

Edward and Gordon clearly have gained a great deal with their PR women. For the rest of us, though, these matches made in media heaven deliver a more ambiguous message.

Their professional brief decrees that PR women pull strings and work hard - but remain content to sit back and bask in reflected glory. They nurture the reputation and plan for the success of others, fixing and facilitating from one copy deadline to another power lunch. And beneath the veneer of careerism and the glow of sound-bites, what does the PR pro remind us of? Why, the traditional wife in her traditional domestic domain.

Where the professional slips into the personal, the image Sophie and Sarah convey is unabashedly old-fashioned; sun and satellite are divided along traditional gender lines. He aims to do great things, she convinces us of his greatness; he performs on stage, she whispers stage directions. Despite the Psion organisers, mobile phones and website profiles, the plot is as old as the hills.

This is not to say that in the alliances Sophie and Sarah have forged, the macho model will necessarily be propagated. But as any self-respecting PR pro will tell you, what you do is not half as important as what people think you do. The public face of a professional woman playing the supporting role to a powerful man bears all the wrinkles of yesterday's model.

Both leading PR ladies, conscious that, in "selling" their couple (and themselves), their target audience is the nation, have chosen this traditional role: they know what people prefer, and have delivered the "I put him first" scenario. In PR terms, this cliched lifestyle advert may not be the sophisticated, cutting-edge stuff that, say, Conde Nast would opt for; but sometimes a well-worn Hovis-quality image has the best potential for market penetration. As they smile into the cameras, clutching their celebrity partner's hand, these two accomplished and successful women make you wonder whether, after all that talk and all that fuss, a woman's image still needs a man.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?