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.

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