Tuesday 24 June 2008

Political correctness gone mad

My first job in public relations was in a seventeenth century building just off Fleet Street, where the nation’s newspapers were then still based.

Every day, at a civilised mid-morning hour, I would watch a fat old man in a pin-striped suit, with a fresh flower in his buttonhole, wheezing up the alleyway to his desk at the rival PR firm opposite. There I imagine that he drank a cup of coffee and flicked through the morning’s press cuttings before puffing back to El Vino’s for a three hour lunch, swiftly followed by an early train home. He struck me as the archetypal City PR man, and the ideal role model for my own career.

We did a lot of drinking in my office back then; and a lot of smoking, too, when we could find time amongst the main work of flirting and blatantly sexual badinage. We recruited our female assistants (and they always were assistants rather than executives in the early 1980s) entirely for their looks. I am ashamed to confess that I once appointed as my PA a blonde air hostess with no secretarial qualifications whatsoever, solely on the strength of her brilliantly satisfactory response to the question “Have you got a boyfriend?”

Similarly unreconstructed City types used to amuse themselves with a riddle about three equally highly qualified candidates for a position. Which one got the job? The one with the biggest breasts, ho ho.

These memories of the distant past were brought crashing back by the hugely entertaining case of that Wear Valley councillor whose career seemed to be on the line after he described three of the council’s officers as “nice bits of stuff”. The fact that he is also the “equalities and diversity champion” of the council made it almost too good to be true.

I particularly relished the readers’ comments on the story posted on one national newspaper’s website, where a series of predictable rants about “political correctness gone mad” vied for attention with the gloriously cruel one-liner: “The guy needs a new pair of glasses.”

The story could have run and run, if only the ladies concerned hadn’t made it clear that they had taken Councillor Taylor’s remarks as the compliment he intended. Just as another council’s efforts last week to ban the word “brainstorming” for fear of offending epileptics and the mentally ill were undermined by the total bafflement expressed by every charity actually concerned with the welfare of those groups.

It is reassuring to know that common sense mercifully still exists in some quarters, though we must all remain on our guard against that tiny minority who are just itching for an opportunity to take offence, and to be compensated accordingly.

Although standards of acceptable behaviour have tightened considerably over the last 25 years, the most basic maxim of advertising remains constant: sex sells. Sadly for me, people twigged some time ago that the rule applies just as strongly to my own trade, giving attractive women something of an edge.

My favourite clients have always been blunt northern businessmen, and the ones that got away would often be frank about why my success rate in pitches was declining. “You gave a really good presentation, Keith, but on the whole I’d rather deal with a bird with very long legs and a very short skirt. Wouldn’t you?” I am still working on a satisfactory riposte to that.

I am genuinely pleased that suitably qualified women can now advance far above me on the career ladder, though slightly troubled that their looks still seem to have so much bearing on their prospects. But if we are really committed to equality, why are there so few opportunities for fat old blokes with floral buttonholes in the booming and allegedly under-regulated lap dancing sector? Now that really would be political correctness gone brainstorming.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

The underdog may need to learn some new tricks

Nearly everyone rejoices in a surprise victory by the underdog, whether in wars, elections, games or talent shows. So naturally I raised a feeble cheer when the Irish voted down the Lisbon Treaty, thereby consigning the European Constitution to the dustbin of history once and for all.

At least that’s what should have happened, according to the rules. Just as it should have done when the original text was rejected by the voters of France and the Netherlands in 2005. Yet the returning officer at Dublin Castle had hardly finished announcing the results before European Commission President Barroso was popping up on the telly to announce that the Treaty was still very much alive; the perennial EU cheerleaders on the BBC were citing some of the laughable misunderstandings which had led to our intellectually challenged neighbours placing their crosses in the wrong box; and David Miliband was affirming that the Government would press ahead with the important work of ratification.

We are being denied a vote on the spurious grounds that the Treaty is radically different from the Constitution, on which every major political party had pledged a referendum. But the real reason, of course, is that the Government and their Liberal Democrat allies are convinced that they would lose. The Irish experience, where electors rejected the advice of nearly every mainstream party, and of the whole business and media establishment, will only have reinforced that conviction.

It surprises me that the great British public is credited with such dangerous independence of mind, after almost 40 years of bombardment with mendacious propaganda about how “Europe” is essential for our jobs, prosperity and security. But then the Irish have had precisely the same treatment, and with rather more justification. Their economic miracle undoubtedly owes much to the billions in EU subsidies which have been poured into the country since 1973, with the British taxpayer ultimately picking up a large share of the bill.

I would like to think that we are sceptical because we have finally grasped that almost every maddening new law in this country is dictated by our masters in Brussels. Home information packs and fortnightly bin collections are among the baleful consequences, while my village shop lies under threat of closure as a direct result of the post office rationalisation decreed by Directive 97/67/EC of 1997.

But while opinion polls suggest that we may finally have got the measure of Europe, they reveal a sad indifference to other daily assaults on our ancient freedoms. Apparently we are overwhelmingly supportive of locking up potentially innocent people for six weeks, presumably on the grounds that it isn’t going to happen to us. Even though we have already seen the surveillance powers enacted for “the fight against terrorism” used by local authorities to snoop on residents to see whether they are putting their bins out on the right day, or living in the catchment area of the school they have selected for their children.

David Davis is 100% right about the importance of this issue, and it pained me to see the Government making political capital out of his resignation. This, closely following a European Parliament expenses scandal, reinforced the impression that the Conservative Party is doomed to be the Newcastle United of British politics, with the silverware perennially eluding its grasp.

Fighting an unnecessary by-election against no meaningful opposition may seem a strange way to advance an excellent cause, but perhaps there is no alternative to such dramatic gestures when crucial Parliamentary votes are lost to bullying and bribery. What other way forward is there for the peoples of Europe, either, when the inconvenient results of successive democratic referenda are overridden by their arrogant political elites?

Fathers for Justice may yet prove the role models for ignored underdogs everywhere. Does anyone know where I can hire a Superman costume?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Not tomorrow's chip wrapper

One of the saddest things about PR is the fact that clients hardly ever read newspapers. They just look at the headlines and pictures. And, unfortunately, neither of those is contributed by the journalists we keep cultivating over expense account lunches.

It does not matter that the story itself is scrupulously balanced, and incorporates all our carefully constructed excuses. If the headline reads “Yet another profit warning from Blogco”, or the camera has caught the chief executive on a bad hair day, we are still doomed.

It took me years of bribery and cajolery to get a certain newspaper to stop printing a grotesque photograph of one client cramming an enormous pasty into his mouth. It became a yearly ritual to run it above the details of his salary and bonus from the annual report, under a witty headline incorporating the words “fat” and “cat”.

When asked what on earth had possessed him to pose for the picture in the first place, the CEO replied “Because they asked”. Moral: never miss a photo-shoot.

The most dangerous moment is when we breathe a sigh of relief and think we have got away with it. That means nemesis is almost certainly creeping up from behind, wielding a sock full of wet sand. Several times over the years I have congratulated myself on not finding the expected damning comments in the business sections of newspapers. Only to realise half an hour later that that was because they were plastered all over the front page.

Last week a national newspaper printed an entirely accurate article about a client. The journalist concerned had even had the courtesy to read it over to me beforehand. I read the cutting on the internet and was not delighted with the headline, but thought it could have been much worse. Then I scrolled down to find a Photoshopped picture of my client looking greedily deranged, apparently brandishing a huge wad of cash in the style of Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney.

I haven’t dared to ask whether he can see the funny side. I expect I’ll find out when I next submit a bill. And thanks to the dead hand of the Elfin Safety boys, I cannot even claim that it is only tomorrow’s chip wrapper.

Keith Hann is a trying PR consultant.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 June 2008

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Opera, according to Moliere, is the most expensive noise known to man. For others it is the highest pinnacle of the arts, capable of engaging and moving them like nothing else.

I fall into the latter camp, as you might deduce from the fact that I spent five nights last week at operas. It would have been six, but I prudently concluded that asking my new partner to hang around at Alnmouth station for an hour was too high price a pay even to catch Opera North’s Romeo et Juliette.

I did see their excellent Macbeth, in which the dour Scottish plotter duly got his bloody come-uppance in the final scene. That had an entirely predictable contemporary resonance. Much more surprising were those in the superb Opera North production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As the “rude mechanicals” stumbled around the stage in the funniest interpretation of their play that I have ever seen, I was irresistibly reminded of the present Government’s apparent inability to get anything right. Truly, Gordon Brown is one of nature’s Bottoms.

I also took a trip south, primarily to see The Coronation of Poppea at Glyndebourne, where people don evening dress in the middle of the afternoon to eat picnics in a long interval which is, for a fair chunk of the audience, the whole point of the performance. The plotting and sexual shenanigans on stage evoked memories of both the Major and Blair eras, with the former perhaps having the edge despite John Prescott’s valiant efforts to keep Labour’s end up.

Poppea has the great virtue of building steadily to its concluding love duet, perhaps the most gorgeous ever written. Its defect is as a morality tale, since the deranged tyrant Nero and the scheming Poppea are united in loving bliss, and it is left to the audience to discover that, in real life, he went on to murder her. It would be a fine thing for this Government if they could drop the curtain at a similarly happy high point, but I fear that the plot has progressed well beyond that.

Having a free evening before Poppea, on which I hoped to meet some Geordie exiles now living near the south coast, I rashly accepted an invitation to join them at a performance of La Boheme by one of those obscure foreign opera companies which tour Britain giving performances of the popular classics.

Although the soprano playing Mimi had a passable voice, she laboured under the considerable handicap of having clearly qualified for her old age pension some years ago. So in the tragic final scene, instead of the customary sobs, one heard whispers of “Well, at least she’s had a good innings.”

However, this was nothing compared with the miscasting of the principal tenor. Apart from the fact that he was far too old and fat to play the ardent poet Rodolfo, he bore a truly staggering resemblance to our beleaguered Prime Minister, only without Gordon Brown’s range of facial expressions or charisma. I know from overheard interval conversations that this was a general perception, and not the result of some peculiar obsession of my own.

He also had a pretty fundamental defect in an opera singer: he could not sing a note. The best moment for me in the whole sorry evening was when we stupidly returned for the second act and the old chap sitting next to me turned to his wife and said, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse.” Whereupon the woman sitting behind him accidentally tipped a full glass of pomegranate juice all over his beautifully laundered white shirt.

Perfectly illustrating the fact that, when you pin your hopes on people who are patently in the wrong jobs, things can always get worse. And, that being the case, they almost certainly will.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

The overwhelming appeal of the other side

You may be familiar with the story of the radio disc jockey who broadcast warm congratulations to a listener on reaching the grand old age of 111, then had to admit misreading the request; he was actually supposed to be commiserating with her for being ill.

These thoughts come to mind because this is my 111th column on page 11, as well as my 54th birthday. How I wish it were tomorrow, so that you could post me a card, ideally containing a gift of folding money.

I nearly did not make it. I came close to being killed last week on the long drive to write my first ever restaurant review. I swerved violently to avoid a lamb, which was in the road because the grass is always greener on the other side.

As I spotted the Grim Reaper in the hedgerow, it struck me that this would at least be a massively appropriate reason for my demise. Every chef I know is desperate to follow in the footsteps of Gordon, Jamie, Hugh etc, and make it onto TV. While my colleague Tom Gutteridge, throughout his very successful career in television, has harboured ambitions to be a chef; hence his presence in the kitchens of the Queen’s Head at Great Whittington.

Similarly, I spent more than 20 years working in PR in the City of London, loathing my job and wishing that I could be a journalist or, ideally, a humorous writer. This was despite daily contact with journalists who were constantly complaining about being overworked and underpaid, and frequently seeking a way to transfer their skills into public relations.

Added to which, the one person I know who could reasonably put “humorist” as his occupation lives in a permanent state of genteel poverty, and is just about the most miserable individual I have ever met.

For the last four years I have been deliberately running down my PR business by spurning new commissions and being even ruder than usual to my remaining clients. In parallel with this, I have developed ideas for a range of hilarious books, which have been greeted by the publishing world with truly astonishing indifference.

So my humorist friend suggested a Plan B: start writing a blog, and wait for the talent spotters to beat down my door. It has achieved nothing of the sort, though it does seem to have amused a few people, and frustrated many more who got to it by typing “dogging Northumberland” into Google.

More importantly, it has finally shamed me into achieving a much needed two stone weight loss, and has found me a delightful girlfriend, who read the pointless ramble and decided that I was the ideal man for her. I mention this as a tip to those for whom conventional internet dating has so far proved unproductive.

Naturally she arrived on the scene at precisely the moment when I had finally come up with a book idea that seemed to be attracting a bit of interest: Must Have Own Teeth, a comic guide to the vicissitudes of hopeless dating among the over-50s. She has sportingly agreed that I can still go ahead and write it, so long as I don’t take my dates anywhere nice or attempt to sleep with them afterwards, but my heart is no longer in it.

Being 17 years younger than I am, my new companion is keen to have children, which are something I felt pretty sure would never feature in my life. But even before we reach that potential hurdle, sharing my expensive tastes with her has begun to make me open my bank statements with the same sort of trepidation that Gordon Brown feels on receiving the latest opinion polls. In fact I’ve started looking back over the fence towards PR and thinking how remarkably lush the grass looks.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.