In his book A Life in Journalism and PR, PRIA Life Fellow Geoff Holden recounts his career from copy boy to owner of his own PR firm. This extract, part 11, takes us through early road safety campaigns.
Involvement with Road Safety
Throughout the late 1960s until the early 1980s, initially just myself and later several members of our team were consultants to the Road Safety Council, an organisation formed by the State Government with an independent board, consisting of representatives of the SA Police, RAA, Education Department, the Transport Workers’ Union and the SA Railways but operated by public servants.
Initially the Road Safety Council was starved for funds
and we always worked at much reduced rates.
Fortunately, the two secretaries with whom we worked were both dedicated to the task and so were most of their staff. (Initially I was asked to help the Council while I was at EWA which retained the account after I left.) A year or so later I was asked to tender for the contract and won it.
Bernie Plew, with whom I had a long personal association, began as the first field officer. At my suggestion, the then Secretary, Ted Botting, who also worked as Secretary of the Road Traffic Board, agreed to send him to the public relations course I was running at the Institute of Technology. Consequently, Bernie developed a great understanding of what his role as an educator in road safety should be, and worked with us until he moved to Darwin in a similar role. (The techniques we developed with him were then put into effect in the Northern Territory.)
Initially the Road Safety Council was starved for funds and we always worked at much reduced rates.
When Ted Botting’s health began to fail, the RSC moved to the corner of Rundle street east and Pulteney street, the location of an old department store. The site is now a multi-story car park.
Bernie Plew became Secretary and it was also at this time that Bruce Boykett became Chairman. Bruce had just retired as General Manager of the RAA and was extremely conservative in his views. Those views were about to be changed!
The “Go Slow on the Roads” campaign
Bruce had just taken over as chairman! Christmas was coming – and at this time the Trades and Labor Council was running a major “go slow”campaign for some reason I have forgotten. It involved all unionists.
John Jennings and I discussed how we could mount a major campaign with the very meagre funds that were available. From memory it was $500.
John telephoned Jack Nyland, the Secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union and an influential member of the Trades and Labor Council. Jack was also a member of the Road Safety Council committee. On what we thought was a confidential basis, John asked Jack whether he thought the Christmas road safety campaign could take the form of a “go slow on the roads” campaign as a spin-off of the general TLC campaign.
It would draw attention to the need to drive safely over the Christmas holidays and would be seen by the public as a humorous support for road safety by the union movement – especially when we launched our media campaign.
John reached into his brief case. Out came a vase.
We told Bernie what we were thinking and he discussed it with his very conservative chairman who objected violently. (He had no time for the union movement!)
But we were too late to stop Jack Nyland. The Trades and Labor Council went for it in a big way. The story was picked up by the media and covered extensively.
Bruce Boykett, who had been chairman for only 10 days, was furious. He demanded a meeting with us. It would be the first time we had met since he took over (although I had had dealings with him in his RAA role).
We went to the RSC office. I had noticed that John was carrying a substantial brief case but had thought nothing of it.
Bernie formally introduced us and we sat down in front of an obviously angry Bruce Boykett.
John reached into his brief case. Out came a vase. He reached down again and proceeded to empty a bottle of water into the vase. By this time, Bruce, Bernie and I were open mouthed and silent.
John reached down again and placed a rose in the vase Bruce Boykett demanded “what on earth is this, Mr. Jennings?” John replied “It’s a peace rose Mr. Boykett.”
Bruce Boykett burst into loud laughter and said something along the lines of “you’ve made your point. Let’s get on with the job.”
We had a wonderful working relationship with him from then on. No matter how outlandish some of our plans might sound, he always listened, and enthusiastically adopted them once he understood we knew our craft.
We were working on a shoe string budget and achieving good results despite this.
Finally, RSC gets some funding -and a training centre
There came a time when the Minister of Transport, Geoff Virgo, demanded more emphasis on road safety education, particularly of drivers caught for minor traffic offences as well as for new drivers, and learned, I think for the first time, how meagre the funds provided for road safety really were.
He announced that the annual driver’s licence fee would be increased by $2 a year, half of the income to be spent on improving railway crossings (a serious cause of fatalities), and the other half to be allocated to the Road Safety Council. The fund would be separate from the State Budget and Treasury were not to have any say on the matter.
Bernie Plew prepared a budget for this particular purpose and then realised that more than three quarters of the income was still available for other road safety purposes.
After talking the matter over with his chairman, he came to my office and reminded me that we had on various occasions, discussed the possibility of establishing a Road Safety Education Centre, where student drivers could hone their driving skills and lectures could be held.
Bernie was on his way to see the Minister, Geoff Virgo, to get approval for the driver training classes which would be conducted by the Council’s field officers.
He asked me whether it would be possible to draft a proposal for a road safety instruction centre that he could take to the Minister at 5 pm. It was then just before 4pm.
We hastily drafted a proposal and he went off to his appointment.
On November 7, 1974, when the 329th death on the
road was announced, we launched Project 329
Just before 6pm he came back to the office to announce the Minister was very enthusiastic. There was one proviso. Several sites had been suggested by the Minister but there was some available land on Oaklands road, Marion, in the Minister’s electorate. This was thought to be ideal.
The centre was opened on that land and operated very successfully for several years. We were also to be involved a few years later in the establishment of a similar centre in Mount Gambier.
On October 22,1974, it became obvious that the number of road deaths would rise to a new record high of about 400 before the end of December, due to the lethargy of the public. Research showed that the prevailing view was “it’s always the other fellow, it will never happen to me.”
We were asked to plan a campaign that would change driver attitudes, have an impact on reducing road fatalities and more importantly reduce serious injury producing accidents.
With the approval of the Road Traffic Board, we selected a minor country road where we had a sign writer to paint the number “329 “on the road surface.
Our photographer took a picture, our artist worked on it, and we planned a campaign to be launched through the media when the death toll reached that number (the death toll for the 1973 calendar year). A poster was designed, advertising, brochures and ideas for news stories were drafted for all media.
Our budget for all activities, including advertising (which we designed) was set at $52,600. Actual expenditure was just over $52,400. (It was estimated at that time, that each road death cost the Australian community $50,000.)
On November 7, 1974, when the 329th death on the road was announced, we launched Project 329 with the help of the Combined Operations Group (see page 41) and with the support of all the media.
Bruce Boykett, Bernie and I had previously met the managing editors/directors of “The Advertiser” and the “News”, and the CEOs of the TV and radio stations to gain their enthusiastic support.
In the eight months from the campaign launch to June 30, there were on average two less road deaths a month than in the previous comparable period. More significantly, in the eight months before Project 329 was launched, a monthly average of 647.5 persons received treatment at metropolitan hospitals as a result of road crashes. In the eight months after the launch 537.7 treatments a month were recorded. Both deaths and recorded injury statistics showed a continuing decline thereafter.
This campaign proved the effectiveness of carefully planned road safety education programmes and we continued to use this approach in future years. It is pleasing to note that the downward trend in road deaths and injury producing incidents has now continued over many years.
While there are even more vehicles and bicycles on the roads, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have become more conscious of the need for care. Major improvements in vehicle design and safety features have also helped.
The programme won the Road Safety Council and the consultancy a Public Relations Institute of Australia (SA) Award for the best programme of the year. I still hold a copy of our report on that project, complete with copies of media releases, leaflets, drink coasters and advertising material.