Tuesday 22 November 2011

The Hann Perspective: In Praise of the Personal Assistant

In the unlikely event that I ever merit an obituary, I have little doubt that it will note that my principal vice was an exceedingly bad temper, luckily moderated by extreme laziness. It is only this that allows me to be writing this column rather than serving an exemplary sentence for a road rage attack.

Both anger and idleness are hereditary failings. My grandfather, a prosperous Alnwick garage proprietor, was ruined when he was successfully sued for libel by one of his competitors, after writing an intemperate letter to the Northumberland Gazette. Family legend has it that he blamed his downfall on my aunt, who acted as his secretary, for typing and delivering the outburst in accordance with his instructions. Instead of divining that he was just letting off steam and consigning it to the dustbin where it belonged.

The first lesson from this is that it is probably never a good idea to employ members of your own family. And the second is that there is surely no greater asset to any business than a good Personal Assistant, who can read the boss’s mind, anticipate his or her reactions, and head off disaster with a timely “Have you thought of …” or, in extremis, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

In a longish career offering advice to chief executives, I have often been struck by the symbiotic relationship between outstanding CEOs and brilliant PAs. Indeed, as the flawed system of remuneration committees has ratcheted up executive rewards to indefensibly stratospheric levels, I have occasionally been moved to wonder whether it would not be in shareholders’ best interests to let the PA run the business. She (and, let’s be honest, it is almost invariably a “she”) often seems to have a rather better grasp of many key facts about the company than her boss. Despite the distraction of taking responsibility for such important personal matters as paying her employer’s bills, booking his restaurants and holidays, and remembering his family birthdays and wedding anniversary.

Secretary recruitment errors No 1: probably crap at PowerPoint

As a tip to aspiring PRs and others in the service sector: if you are looking to win or retain business, there is no better person to befriend in any company than the CEO’s PA, who also usually has the advantages of being better-looking, more charming and considerably more accessible than her employer. In very large organisations, start with the PA’s PA and work your way up from there.

I know that I owe a great deal of whatever success I have had in my career to PAs: both those of my clients and the long-suffering and surprisingly long-serving employees who shielded them from the worst of my idleness and irritability. Though I don’t suppose for a minute that any client ever actually believed their traditional “He’s in a meeting” line as my lunches dragged on late into the afternoon. Particularly as they all knew exactly how I felt about meetings.

Secretary recruitment errors No 2: Home Secretary

For the last seven years I have been entirely self-employed, acting as my own PA. No wonder the growth of my business has stalled. My inadequate mechanical substitutes have been BT Call Minder, to shield me from unwanted telephone callers, and the Internet.

Hating telephone conversations as much as I have done since childhood always seemed a pretty fundamental handicap for a PR man, but luckily more and more media enquiries have migrated to email in recent years. Presumably this is because it reduces the scope for misunderstandings, though I have yet to fathom how I can give an “off the record” response in writing that will be saved on my hard drive for all eternity.

Secretary recruitment errors No 3: Cardinal Secretary of State

The other downside of the web is that it vastly increases the risk of making the same dreadful mistake of my grandfather. One only has to glance at the poisonous comments attracted by so many media and social networking websites to appreciate how easy it is to let rip. No amanuensis needed to type your letter, no postman to deliver it: just bang out the vitriol and ping! It is shared with the world.

That is why I always take care to read every outgoing email carefully before I press the “send” button. And, if it is on a sensitive or important subject, usually save it as a draft for an hour or two to consider whether it could be put better, or best left unsaid.

My son, aged two and a half, is currently demonstrating the Hann family traits to perfection, alternating between self-prostrating “It’s all spoilt!” tantrums and “Mummy do it” indolence. He is lucky to have found the perfect PA in his mother, though I suppose before too long I am going to have to give him a serious talk about the inadvisability of employing a member of his own family in such a critical position.

The Iceland Keith Hann is a DFS PR consultant who has already sold his naming rights – www.keithhann.com

Originally published in nebusiness magazine, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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