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A Life in Journalism and PR: 8


In A Life in Journalism and PR, PRIA Life Fellow Geoff Holden recounts his career from copy boy to owner of his own PR firm, at the same time charting the evolution of the print media, lobbying and PR industries in South Australia. In part 8 below, “the Canberra Octopus”, saving an historic building, Adelaide trading hours and spontaneous cheers in Parliament.

Shopping Hours legislation
John Jennings held the PR account of the powerful Retail Traders Association at a time when the shops in the metropolitan area were required to close at 5.30pm on Fridays, and 12.30 pm on Saturdays.

Shops a few kilometres past the top of Tapleys Hill on the South road and a few kilometres north of Gepps Cross could open at any time they wanted, especially on Friday nights. This was causing annoyance as well as significant loss of business to retailers of all sizes in the metropolitan area and was also hurting the equally powerful Shop Assistants’ Union because the employees of the fringe traders could see no benefit in union membership.

In 1970 I worked with John for a combined committee of retail organisations plus the union to mount a campaign against the Dunstan Government’s plan to open all shops on Friday nights.

The ALP Government had only four members in the Legislative Council and three of them were required to serve as Ministers. Although they were there because of their union backgrounds they were all reasonable men with whom we got on extremely well, There was not at that time the bitterness and hostility between members of the different parties that appears to exist today. Once the arguments ended, there were some very good friends across party lines.

The Government introduced a Bill for a referendum on the issue. The late Don Banfield MLC had to lead the Government’s case in the Upper House.

He telephoned John Jennings and after telling him that he knew we were on different sides in the issue, he asked whether we would write him a speech on the matter. He had never made a speech of this kind before and needed help which he could not get from within his own party. We told our client’s chairman of the approach and he approved.

John outlined to the Minister a series of options we believed he
could take if he chose not to implement the result of the referendum

John wrote the speech honestly, putting the Government’s case quite fairly and Don was always grateful. Our campaign defeated the referendum although there was an extremely high informal vote. (We had traders and shop assistants working together to hand out “how to vote” cards.)

Very early in the following week, John was tipped off that the Minister (Glen Broomhill) was thinking of ignoring the result of the referendum. He visited the Minister to discuss the matter and “accidentally” mislaid in the reception office a draft of a full page newspaper advertisement with the headline “If you can’t trust the Government, who can you trust?”

John outlined to the Minister a series of options we believed he (the Minister) could take if he chose not to implement the result of the referendum. John then outlined the counter measures we would take.

The Minister was left with no choice but to let the referendum result stand, much to the relief of the retailers and the Shop Assistants’ Union.

It would be several years before any change to trading hours in Adelaide would be made.

At the time of the referendum, Coles and Woolworths both supported the opposition to extended trading hours. However, several years later those two companies were the instigators of campaigns to free shopping hours and so today, shops have far more time to trade.

The Canberra Octopus
A few years later we were appointed on two occasions to conduct campaigns in SA against Federal Government plans to take away State powers and we developed a logo called the “Canberra Octopus” which we used extensively.

Some time after these events I opened the morning paper to find an advertisement by the Democratic Labor Party (a spin off from the ALP) which featured our Canberra Octopus. It was authorised by a prominent SA lawyer and I had the pleasure of informing him that if it appeared again, he would face legal action! He withdrew his advertisements immediately.

Move to 47 Waymouth Street
We needed more office space and our office in Flinders street had become infamous for an “outrageous campaign” (as Dunstan labelled the shopping hours fight).

I had now gained further clients, among them Uniroyal (the tyre manufacturer now Bridgestone)and Rubery Owen Holdings Ltd. John had also asked to merge his smaller business into mine which was growing quite dramatically. Holden Jennings & Associates Pty Ltd was registered.

We moved to an office at 47 Waymouth street sublet from one of the legal firms which occupied several floors. There were some interesting personalities among the lawyers, and in fact, two of them subsequently were to refer business to us.

Charles said he wanted some advice
and placed two $10 notes on the desk

By this time we had employed a further secretary and a trainee consultant. Within a few months, we had gained further business, including the Road Safety Council of SA, added another two consultants to our team and had also employed a casual journalist to act as a subeditor for some of our client publications.

Edmund Wright House
I was in my office one day when my secretary told me there were two visitors to see me. One was Charles Wright, a successful optometrist and the other was his friend Perce Colyer, who ran a very profitable tobacconists business in Rundle street. (Smoking was still very popular at that time.

Charles said he wanted some advice and placed two $10 notes on the desk and told me to tell him when his time had run out. I told him that was not our method of doing business and to take back his money.

He explained that there was an historic building in King William street, between Currie and Hindley streets, designed by famous mid to late 1800s architect, Edmund Wright (no relation), for a now defunct bank which was to be torn down to make way for a huge building to be erected by an interstate developer.

He and Perce believed the old bank building should be preserved and somebody (unknown to this day) had suggested I could help them with this. A complication was that the National Trust of SA was headed by the architect who would be designing the new building. I brought John in to take part in this exploratory meeting.

We recommended a dual approach to the campaign.
We would conduct a behind the scenes operation …

We told Charles and Perce that we would think about what could be done and would prepare a report Immediately they left, we walked down to see for ourselves what they were talking about. We had never noticed the building but once we saw the outside we realised that it should not be torn down. (The interior was even more spectacular as we later discovered although it did need some restoration work).

We recommended a dual approach to the campaign. We would conduct a behind the scenes operation, approaching politicians, planning and implementing a legislative strategy, while at the same time Charles and Perce would establish a public face (with us mounting publicity). The latter approach would try to raise funds “to purchase the building” (not a hope in a thousand years) but it would give the campaign a public face and media sympathy.

This public campaign needed tax deductibility but that was not easy to get. Eventually the National Trust was told by the Federal Government that it must provide access to its deductibility arrangement or the Federal Government would cancel it. I still wonder how that occurred – I have always had a feeling that John Jennings organised it but I never asked.

Over the next few months the public campaign gained enormous publicity, especially as the result of a lady from the Netherlands, who made and sold Dutch pancakes in the city wherever she should get an opportunity to promote our cause.

The Dunstan government remained firm – they would not acquire Edmund Wright House under any circumstances. On several occasions, we thought we were in a winning position through our back room activities.

However, the committee insisted on knowing what we were doing and on three separate occasions, our moves were leaked to the news media, causing our plans to fail. Eventually, we invited Charles Wright to a meeting in our office on a Tuesday afternoon. Charles had exhausted himself over the months and his health was failing.

I had to tell him that we had run out of manoeuvring room and there was nothing more we could do. Although we had been charging substantially reduced fees (less than half our normal rates) we would be wasting money if we were to go on. (He had financed the entire campaign.) I suggested it was time to call it a day. He said he would think about it and would talk to us again.

I had to tell him that we had run out of manoeuvring room
and there was nothing more we could do.

Shortly after 9am on the following day, I had a call from Parliament House. We were asked to send all relevant material on Edmund Wright House to Parliament House before 11am. The caller would say no more.

I telephoned Charles and told him about the phone call. What did it mean? he asked.

“Well, we think it’s good news so don’t give up hope. The Labor Parliamentary caucus meets every Wednesday at 11am. So let’s wait and see what happens.”

At 2pm when Parliament met, Charles, John and I were in the public gallery.

Premier Don Dunstan announced to the House of Assembly that the Government had reconsidered the merits of saving Edmund Wright House and would do so!

Parliament erupted into spontaneous cheers.

This was the first occasion on which a historic building was saved from the wrecker in South Australia.

The campaign won a Public Relations Institute of SA Award for the best public relations program for the year.

The only MP not to cheer the decision was Steele Hall, Leader of the Opposition.

He had realised that Dunstan was looking for a major announcement to overshadow his decision not to build a major water storage at Chowilla dam, on the River Murray, having promised that he would do so!

The Government’s commitment to that project was “non-breakable.” But it was now to be broken and any criticism would be lost in the euphoria over the Edmund Wright House

decision. (The Chowilla site had been found to be unsuitable because of water seepage although this was not known publicly. We knew this because one of my former clients, Foundation Engineering, had been involved in assessing its suitability.)

The SA Manager had told me a few years before, that the only possible solution would be to place an impermeable barrier around the site to a depth of at least 30 feet but it was doubtful that this would be totally successful. Water would still seep away and the evaporation rate would also be very high.

The funds raised by the Save Edmund Wright House committee were used to help restore the interior of the building, which bears a plaque in the foyer, commemorating the efforts of the committee to save the building.

In part 9 next week: Geoff’s firm is involved in a project including designing a new logo and all material for the media – a forecast of the integrated communications agencies we see today.