It's Monday morning and the Great Academic War on 2013 is underway in earnest...
And what better way to limber up for the battles ahead than with a train read of Boomsday, by Thank You for Smoking author Christopher Buckley?
The intellectual adrenalin was already pumping as I pulled out of Malmö Central...
Cassandra Devine was not yet thirty, but she was already tired.“Media training,” they called it. She’d been doing it for years, but it still had the ring of “potty training.” Today’s media trainee was the chief executive officer of a company that administered hospitals, twenty-eight of them throughout the southeastern United States. In the previous year, it had lost $285 million and one-third of its stock market value. During that same period, the client had been paid $3.8 million in salary, plus a $1.4 million “performance bonus.”Corporate Crime Scene, the prime-time investigative television program, was doing an exposé and had requested an interview. In her negotiations with the show’s producers, Cass had learned that they had footage of him boarding the company jet ($35 mil) wearing a spectacularly loud Hawaiian shirt and clenching a torpedo-shaped—indeed, torpedo-size—cigar in his teeth while hefting a bag of expensively gleaming golf clubs. Unfortunate as it was, this footage was only the appetizer
I think I am going to enjoy the company of Cassandra and her boss, Terry Tucker:Terry Tucker had built a successful PR firm, Tucker Strategic Communications, on the premise that those with a debatable claim to humanity will pay through the snout to appear even a little less deplorable.Terry had represented them all, from mink ranchers to toxic waste dumpers, dolphin netters, unzipped politicians, makers of obesity-inducing soft drinks, the odd mobster, and pension fund skimmers. Terry had apprenticed under the legendary Nick Naylor, at the now defunct Tobacco Institute....
As more and more crucial processes move online, we are all being asked to place increasing trust in mechanical devices. The internet of things sounds wonderful, but if you can hack a PC, what is to stop an assassin attacking a heart pacemaker?
Technophobia has been a staple of science fiction since Frankenstein created his monster. What if it gets out of control? What if this new device turns on its creator?
Such fears were grist to the mill for classic sci-fi writer, Isaac Asimov, who in 1941 laid down the Three Laws of Robotics that went on to underpin a whole genre of speculative fiction.
Despite the Laws being hardwired into their positronic brains, people in Asimov's world were still scared of robots, so much so that they were banned from operating on Earth. This is, of course, rather bad news for monopoly supplier, United States Robots and Mechanical Men, IncRobotics. They are confident they have a good product, but somehow they have to build trust in a technology that spooks the ordinary person.
It is an interesting PR conundrum, and one, Asimov addresses in several of the stories contained in The Rest of the Robots. Take this, from Lenny, which was first published in 1958:
(Research director) Lanning grunted. The idea of public guided tours of US Robots was a fairly recent origin and was supposed to serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, the theory went, it allowed people to see robots at close quarters and counter their almost instinctive fear of the mechanical objects through increased familiarity. And on the other hand it is was supposed to interest at least an occasional person in taking up robotics as a life work.
Classic tactics that many a PR would recommend now. Immediately, however, Lanning raises an equally familiar line - ROI.
"Once a week work is disrupted. Considering the man-hours lost the return is insufficient."
"Still no rise in applications?"
"Oh some, but only in the categories where the need isn't vital. It's research men that are needed. You know that. The trouble is that with robots forbidden on Earth itself, there is something unpopular about being a roboticist."
"The damned Frankenstein complex," said Bogert.
By framing the debate in terms of a cultural icon, opponents make it even harder for the pro-robot lobby.
In Galley Slave, from 1951, two scientists at a prestigious university are discussing the merits of accepting a robot proof reader offered to them at a cut rate by US Robotics (again, a classic PR tactic).
"The question in my mind, Dr Lanning, is why we need a robot at all, with all the difficulties in public relations that would entail."
Unfortunately, the robot, Easy, tries to protect an academic by correcting an error it fears maybe damaging, leading to an acrimonious court battle.
Robertson mangled his sandwich. The corporation would not founder for the loss of three-quarters of a million, but the loss would do it no particular good. He was conscious moreover, that there would be a much more costly long term setback in public relations."
Beaton began to write theatre reviews for the Scottish Daily Mail, and a career in journalism followed—including an eye-opening spell as a crime reporter for the Scottish Daily Express, where she witnessed first hand the terrible poverty in Glasgow’s crime-ridden tenements. After she married theDaily Express’ former Middle East correspondent Harry Scott Gibbons, they went travelling, had a son, Charles, and spent some eventful years in the US, including a down-and-out spell living in a doss house “with hot and cold running winos”......Beaton and her husband moved south to Gloucestershire in 1990, whereupon the character of Agatha Raisin was derived variously from E F Benson’s Lucia and Miss Mapp stories; Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair; and the thrusting PRs Beaton encountered during her newspaper days. “She’s middle- aged and rather pushy. Someone you may not necessarily like, but want to win out in the end.”
Moonlighting for Murder - Karen Russell on Agatha Raisin
At 53, Agatha Raisin has realised her dream. She has sold her firm, Raisin Promotions, and is retiring from the 'ephemeral world of public relations' to the idyllic Cotswolds village of Carsely.
"She was free. She could relax. No temperamental pop stars to handle, no prima donnaish couture firms to launch..."
But settling in to village life is a challenge.
"It helps in Public Relations to have a certain amount of charm and Agatha had none. She got results by being a sort of one-woman soft cop/hard cop combination: alternatively bullying and wheedling on behalf of her clients. Journalists often gave space to her clients just to get rid of her. She was also an expert at emotional blackmail and anyone unwise enough to accept a present or a free lunch from Agatha was pursued shamelessly until they paid her back in kind."
Agatha understands journalists:
- "Journalists as a rule belong to the kind of people who are born feeling guilty."
- "Women journalists feel obliged to write about babies to show they are normal. They have to keep trying to identify with the housewives they secretly despise."
Not surprisingly, her PR experience comes in handy when she decides to run a charity auction.
She set about phoning up the editors of local newspapers to raise publicity.. Local editors were used to timid, pleading approaches from ladies of the parish. Never before had they experienced anything like Agatha Raisin on the other end of the phone. Alternately bullying and wheedling, she left them with a feeling that something only a little short of the crown jewels was going to be auctioned. All promised to send reporters, knowing they would have to keep their word...
Just to make sure the auction is noticed, she enlists former employee Roy Silver to stand by the roadside, wearing 'a jesters outfit, cap and bells and all."
"You put it on, you stand by the A44, beside the signs and you wave people down to the village. You could do a little dance."
"No, absolutely not," said Roy, mulishly.
Agatha eyed him speculatively, "If you do it I will give you an idea for those nurseries which will put you on the PR map for lfe.... I'll get your photo into the papers and make them describe you as a famous public relations executive from London.
"Look, Roy, I'm not asking you to do it. I'm telling you."
And she does. Roy is mentioned on local TV, and his new employer is so impressed with the photo of him in Sunday Times he is made a junior executive with a private office and a secretary.
"It was all my own work, thought Agatha, regretting bitterly having given Roy the credit."
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, by MC Beaton (Kindle edition)
Writing in PR Week, big gun Graham Lancaster suggests that PRs need a mix of talents. These include a good intellect and quick, street-wise mind to assimilate masses of information quickly, as well as being obsessively inquisitive and a sales person par excellence. Such are the basic requirenments to succeed in "the best job in the world", "the senior service of all communications disciplines".
At 42, divorcee John Blake fits the bill. He is international director of Globecom, the third largest PR group in the world, earning almost £100,000 a year in 1996. His role is to court and win big international clients, such as Korean giant, SGT. And not only does he court and win the $1.5m contract, he courts and wins chairman Sool Kay-Sheen's beautiful, alcoholic, model girlfriend, Jane Field.
And he in turn is courted by MI6, to spy on Sool.
This is dangerous territory. Blake will not emerge unscarred, but he will have some fun on the way. Like when he finds Jane standing in his hotel door way, wearing riding gear and holding a whip.
"...her eyes now glazing over in a kind of aroused dreaminess he had seen before in some highly sexed women. Women wanting sex, not him.
"I just hope you're not a typical PR man, Blake. You know? All talk...."
Happily, Blake proves himself up to the task, as Jane is to tell confide in a girlfriend.
"He is funny. Funny-amusing funny. Also his world isn't so different from ours. PR and modelling. It is all about image, confidence and presentation."
- Grave Song, by Graham Lancaster, 1997 Coronet
"At least one of my children was doing something creative," (Mum) complained. "I had some hopes for you, Juliet, when you did that Media Studies degree. I thought you might go into television. Of course, I have no hopes for you now," she added cuttingly. "I gave them up when you started in public relations."
My Lurid Past, by Lauren Henderson
It is never quite clear whether Professor Cosmo Saltana and Dr Owen Tuby truly believe in Social Imagistics as an academic discipline but they certainly have a robust view of public relations as practiced at the University of Brockshire.
Published in 1968, Out Of Town is the first of two J.B. Priestley novels about The Image Men. A chance meeting with wealthy widow Elfreda Drake inspires two down at heel academics to create a new discipline, Social Imagistics, and lay plans for an institute to be connected with an ambitious new University.
Making it up as they go along, Saltana and Tuby develop an impressively pseudo-scientific vocabulary for a field which that lies somewhere between sociology and PR. It is part of the fun that concepts such as Pattern Maintenance, Adaptation, Deliberate Blur, Softened Edge, Sudden Explosion and, most significant, Reverse Image are never quite explained. It is enough for us to know that the founders have realised there is money to be made by helping people shape their public image.
Ambitious Vice-Chancellor "Jayjay" Lapford sees advantages in adding this pioneering new subject to Brockshire's armoury and is quick to involve his PRO, "Busy Liz" Plucknett. Saltana is not impressed with "Miss Liz Who's-It", observing "Brockshire's the first university I've known that had a press agent or whatever she calls herself."
Nonetheless it is agreed that the new Institute should be announced by press release.
"All right, all right I've been a nuisance, cried Miss Plucknett. "I know it, I know it. I often am - it's part of my job as I see it. But this is the difference between getting a little paragraph buried away somewhere and getting a column and probably a photograph." She jumped up and lapped her hands in one of the most revolting little-girl-acts Elfreda had seen for some time. "Suprise, surprise, surprise! Really, truly - and big - big!"
What makes it big is that famous model Primrose East wants to study Social Imagistics (she claims to be in love with Saltana).
"Now I shouldn't have to draw diagrams for you. We have this Drake Foundation and Social Image Institute story - a nice little story no doubt, but with no wide appeal. So Primrose East is going to Brockshire... So what do we do? We tie it up in one lovely package... It's not just one story. I could milk it for months."
Priestley is indulgently savage in his description of Busy Liz: "A shortish, square woman about forty who had a sharply pointed nose, a helmet of black hair, probably dyed a bit, one of those rubbery mouths that can talk forever, fancy crimson spectacles that never did anybody any good, and a pea-soup-coloured suit that was dead wrong for her." The failings of PR are illustrated on first meeting. "As soon as they were introduced she told Elfreda that she was crazy - but crazy - about America - wasn't it the most? She gave the impression that she had spent most of her life over there whereas in fact... she had spent three weeks there on one of those new trips."
As Jayjay's wife Isabel, the power behind the throne, observes: "I've never liked this Busy Lizzery, as you know, but money had to be raised and good public relations could help. But we are going much too far. After all this is a university - not a musical or a film we are promoting."
Maggie needs some to employ some fairly sophisticated PR skills for her day job, working on a £1.4m tampon launch, but that's a doddle compared with the brief outlined by a freelance client, Saint Peter who wants her to come up with a repositioning campaign for his boss, Jesus.
Daytimes involve trying to rein in creatives who don't understand the subtleties of sanpro communications, night-times revolve around rather earthy descriptions of the less than honest propaganda tricks employed by Jesus and his gang. Oh, and while she is working all hours against the biological clock her wine business husband Simon is having an affair with this secretary.
Saint is a better book than a sketch of the plot might suggest, and Thebo uses a reasonable amount of insider knowledge to create a realistic and well-realised working environment. Maggie's agency, Blues, feels real and her PR work is rather more than the usual loose vehicle for suggesting glamour, vivacity and a decent income.
I am deep in a meeting with Creative... We are an intergrated agency which means that the PR and the advertising are under one roof. Usually the direction of a campaign is led by advertising and I am more or less told how to approach a product. With this one it is the other way around, and I can tell that they are uneasy about it.Advertising have a problem with the tight parameters of the brief. I am trying to explain that it is the target market which is closed, not the client.You can't break out a big splashy television campaign because you are aiming at people who are squeamish. And so I am spending this part of my life, really, making some poor sad women who are obviously completely repressed a little less sad by saving their dignity and their panties.
...it'll just be me and Celia behind the teapot and sandwich trays. She'll be serving and I'll be smiling and showing slides on the highpower laptop all day... I'll see fifty people, maybe fifty-five. I will have taken the important people aside earlier. It's softly-softly with impact... meant to get the concept of discretion into the heads of journalists...There's so much to hammer home into (their) gerbil-like skulls
One of the premisses on which my PR in Fiction (Stirling21) and Scoop! projects are based is that authors must depict the disciplines and their practitioners in a way which resonates with the reader's preconceptions.
Perhaps he is thinking more about emotion that accurate description, but here is William Boyd talking to Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4's Open Book (Sept 17, 2009, 14.30 into the podcast).
"What is the truth?
".... Everything is subjective and one person's lie is another person's true story and, funnily enough, the more I have written, the more I think the power of the novel, the power of fiction resides in the fact that even though it is completely made up, we actually guarantee its versacity thereby.
"So if you want to know how people react, or how people feel in certain situations, it maybe in time of war, or in a love affair, funnily enough, the place to go is a novel or a short story because everything in that depiction has been made up, but made up in a way to achieve absolute authenticity, Whereas if you go to a memoir, or a biography, or a work of history, or a work of reportage it is selected and shaped by the author in a way that cannot possibly replicate whatever that truth was.
"So it is one of those strange paradoxes that to find out what life is like in all its complexities, read fiction."
I am not sure I can sustain the argument that Confessions of a Shopaholic is "made up in a way to achieve absolute authenticity" but I was pleased that quite a few people at Stirling 21 seemed to find some value in my approach. None would admit to having read Shopaholic, which I think is rather a shame, but I did pick up a couple of very promising titles for PR in Fiction.
Connie Amory, the journalist at the centre of Martyn Bedford's Exit, Orange & Red, is based in a "Hallam" shopping mall so not surprisingly she has regular dealings with the Urbopark press officer:
"Warren Bartholemew was consumately adept at managing information to Mall Admin's best advantage without alerting reporters to the fact that he'd steered them away from a more fruitful line of inquiry. Having recently returned from a Mediterranean holiday - Greece? Malta?, she couldn't remember - his boyish broad face was freckled and the eyebrows were bleached blond, lending him a startled expression ..... His southern accent (my italics - in Hallamshire, southern means shifty!) sounded bland and insubstantial after DCI Pink's Hallam."
Naturally Warren is a former reporter...
The press officer spread his hands "OK, OK, you're an independent newspaper, you have to cover stories without fear or favour and so on. I accept that Connie, I've served my time on local newspapers, as you know."
Fictional press officers almost always make stupid mistakes...
Among the press releases to spew from the Mall Link printer ... were two from Warren Bartholomew, head of Mall PRO... The first, a formal announcement that bids were to be invited for Mall Secure when the present in-house agreement expired at the end of the year. The second, purporting to be a statement from Mall Manager Roy Dobbs, warned of the iniquities of the minimum wage and EU edicts on workers' rights... Under the heading Mall Chief Hits Out At Threat To jobs, was a diatribe a perceived assault on management's right to manage (etc)... What aroused Constance's curiosity about the press release was that she'd been sent a draft copy... wherever a paragraph in quotation marks required attribution, it was followed by the instruction [insert your mall manager's name here]...
When Contance phoned Warren Bartholemew (he didn't seem to appreciate) her observation on the remarkable fact that not only did all six Mall Build UK managers share identical views on these issues but they chose to express their opinions in exactly the same words.
... Send in the Clones was the headline on the diary piece about the mall manager's statement.
And Bedford - once a journalist himself - adds a nice touch at the end...
The Crucible also carried a news story - based on a reissued version of the press release.... and reproducing (the manager's) quotes as though they were his. Justifying the decision in a leader column., the editor said he regarded it as a valid and timely contribution to the general debate... He concluded: It doesn't matter who said what, it is what is said that matters.