I have been justifiably taken to task by some dear and charming friends in the public relations business who argue I spend most of my energies on behalf of The Media Online, writing about the media and but never about PR.
Which is, after all (they say) the very engine of modern mass communication, particularly in the financial media where roughly a public relations person initiates 60% of everything written in one way or another.
I have no doubt that financial journalism professionals such as the august Peter Bruce of Business Day will have mild apoplexy at the realisation that they are so dependant upon the PR community. But, one cannot spare the sensitivities of journalists when the truth must out.
Of course, PR people can be extremely annoying, particularly when they do not take the trouble to find out what journalists actually want.
The worst of their type will telephone you to ask if you have received their press release and when you intend using it. Not realising that if every PR person employed this habit journalists would spend 24 hours a day on the phone saying, “yes” and “no I haven’t and will not use it even if persuaded to do so by the hobs of hell and a battalion of very cross US Navy Seals”.
It is probably for this reason alone that most journalists learn to swear.
Anyway, my purpose today is not to demean the majority of public relations professionals, who do a good job, but rather to accede to their demands and write something, hopefully profound, about their industry.
So, let’s talk public relations. Or, is that public affairs? No, it’s now ‘reputation management’. Or, is it?
Whatever it is, it is a very stressful industry mainly because you have to be nice to people you actually don’t like. And you have to be very careful around people you do like.
My brother was in PR at Anglo American in the early 1960s and inspecting the boardroom one day he noticed a maintenance wallah slapping dollops of polish on the floor.
“Be careful with that,” he said, “we don’t want Harry the Horse falling on his arse do we?”
From behind him came a voice: “Actually Mr Moerdyk, I am quite sure-footed you know…”
“Oh bugger,” thought my brother. “Ho, ho,” said Mr Oppenheimer.
A week later a memo from Harry Oppenheimer landed on the desks of the entire Anglo PR department. This was the first memo an Oppenheimer had written to the PR department since Sir Ernest gave them a telling off for a spelling mistake in a press release about the
1922 miners strike.
This time, the chairman was pleading with his PR people to ensure that there were no mistakes in the annual report, which for years had always contained some printer’s devil or other.
The entire department checked and rechecked the final proof. They checked it again. Then they all said this is a pain in the arse and checked the whole lot another half dozen times.
They were all eventually happy until the day the printed copies were distributed to shareholders and on the back page a line read, “This Annual Report was compiled by the Pubic Relations department of the Anglo American Corporation Ltd.”
My brother gave up PR after that and started editing a travel magazine from an army surplus tent in our back yard.
I have just remembered that he asked me to promise never to tell this story. Just as my sister did when she told me about a PR debacle at the Johannesburg Hospital where she worked in the outpatients department. A very large woman came in complaining of stomach pains and it was decided to examine her insides by shoving a Proctorscope up her backside. As she lay on the examination table surrounded by nurses, specialists and a jolly-looking proctologist, my sister’s job was to prise apart the woman’s buttock cheeks to enable the proctologist to do battle with sphincter muscles, colons and myriad intestines. As she did so, a moth flew out of the patient’s posterior and circled lazily above the gathered medics. Stunned silence was followed by all and sundry making a beeline for the door and cracking up with laughter in front of 100 patients sitting in the waiting room.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure this story has anything to do with public relations but rather everything to do with the fact that my family doesn’t trust me anymore having told that story to Jenny Crwys-Williams on 702 talk radio one day.
Ever since then my sister has greeted me with cold disdain and whenever possible, a well aimed kick to my nethers.
I feel nothing of course, because there was a time when I was a PRO and was taught never ever to tell a lie.
But, getting away from my insincerity, lack of ethics and penchant for sending members of my family up the creek without a paddle, there is no doubt that PR is a tough job. Clients give you uphill; journalists give you uphill. “Thanks” is not a word that features highly in the PR environment and when you are faced with adversity no one ever helps out.
Except once, when Queen Elizabeth bailed me out of a sticky situation. Yes I am name-dropping and yes, it is true.
She was opening the Land Rover plant in Pretoria in 1995 and my job was to make sure that the little curtain over the plaque she was unveiling didn’t stick and cause her tennis elbow to flare up.
All went well and the four By Appointment Royal Warrants on the plaque were displayed in all their glory. Prince Philip strode to the podium, looked at the warrants and then looked me in the eye; “Four warrants? Are you allowed to display four warrants?” Accusingly.
Before I could recover from a wide eyed, completely dumbstruck stare, Her Majesty came to my rescue by giving Phil a smack on the wrist and saying, “Of course they are dear, there’s one each for you and me and Charles and mother…”
“Thank you, your majesty,” I whispered, chokingly.
“What was that? ” said Phil.
“Oh do stop being tiresome dear,” whispered her majesty.
A PR nightmare was averted. Unlike the time I was doing some work at BMW in Munich when some German colleagues were being particularly argumentative and I blurted, “Hey, the score is two-nil guys, do I detect another challenge…? ”
Needless to say, I am no longer in the PR business mainly because my mouth is too big and far too prone to shooting itself off.
But, there are a lot of people in the PR industry to whom the media industry owes gargantuan chunks of gratitude.
I hope that they have enjoyed this erudite pen-picture of their industry.