In his book A Life in Journalism and PR, PRIA Life Fellow Geoff Holden charts 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 this extract – earning the limelight of new decimal currency campaign, and the beginning of lobbying.
The introduction of decimal currency provided a great opportunity for the Commonwealth Banking Corporation. (I was the Adelaide consultant on this national account.) In those days, the bank operated as three separate divisions under a Chief General Manager. Each division was controlled by a General Manager. The day to day over-the-counter business was controlled from the Commonwealth Bank in Currie street.
General banking was also available at the bank’s head office in King William street as well as at suburban and country branches. The bank employed “cadets” who acted as assistants to the managers of the three divisions and who liaised with us and anyone who wanted to discuss advertising or charitable activities with the bank. These cadets were being groomed for senior roles and those I knew became successful in business (not necessarily with the bank as they were headhunted).
Six months before the introduction of decimal currency we were given carte blanche to promote the bank as the expert in the new money – and we made the most of it.
We enlisted the aid of a display firm which worked with EWA as required. Major displays went into the two major city offices while smaller displays went into other branches. Each branch appointed one of their staff as a “decimal currency expert” to assist visitors.
The other banks were incensed that they received no publicity
At the same time we mounted a major publicity effort (the displays were so good that they attracted TV news as well as newspaper coverage). The media were encouraged to contact the bank experts for any information they required. In fact we upstaged the Decimal Currency Board which was responsible for the introduction of the new money. (We used their material of course.)
Decimal currency was launched on February 14, 1966 and the Commonwealth Bank received all the publicity. The other banks were incensed that they received no publicity and went as a group to complain to the editors of the newspapers. We learned that each of the banking chiefs were asked if they had offered to help the news media (they had not) and were told that the Commonwealth had constantly offered assistance to their journalists. Therefore, their complaints were rejected!
Our SA committee had mounted what proved to be the most successful campaign by any of the Commonwealth Bank’s operations in Australia.
THE BEGINNING OF “LOBBYING”
The real start of what was to be my long involvement with politicians and what is now called lobbying started while I was at EWA. However, there was a major difference to the lobbyists of today. My work nearly always involved public relations activities surrounding the business of making submissions to Ministers. There were no backroom deals as I understand occur today. I never disclosed my political views (although my sympathies may have been clear) and I never joined any political party.
On most occasions my clients were directly involved in the process and there were no “faceless men.” I note that there are no members of the Public Relations Institute of Australia registered as lobbyists in South Australia today, and that there are no consultants involved in the same manner as I was.
The Road & Railway Transport Act Amendment Bill (1965)
In 1965, I was appointed by EWA to assist a consortium of industry and local country community groups in a campaign against the new Labor Government’s plan to force road transport off the road in the state and to divert it to the railways.
This was my initiation into lobbying and campaigning on legislative and policy issues.
The Government did not concern itself with the fact that road transport coming into SA from elsewhere could operate without hindrance under a provision of the Commonwealth Constitution (Section 92) that declares that trade between the states must be absolutely free. It could not be taxed! However, trade in SA by local transport could be taxed! It would be a total competitive disadvantage for the SA industry.
The Labor Government under Frank Walsh was in power for the first time for many years and to say the Ministers involved were naive would not be an understatement. Until Don Dunstan became Premier after the death of Frank Walsh, they had no press secretaries nor any understanding of how to deal with the news media.
We were engaged in the mid-afternoon, and the committee’s key representative, Claude Downs, and I worked until 2 am, planning a series of public meetings around the state and preparing for a media conference the following day.
Claude was the Company Secretary for a major Mount Gambier-based transport company that operated in SA as well as nationally. I was also to discover that he was a foundation member of my Rostrum Club No. 3 which I had recently joined.
The key point we made in our statement (which our city-based chairman was to make at our media conference) was that “as a result of the Government’s plan the cost of living in Mount Gambier will rise by $1.60 a week for every man, woman and child.”
After a very successful media launch, we went back to the EWA office (Claude was still to establish a separate office based in an accountant’s office in Leigh street, city) and we continued to develop our speakers’ kits and list of public meeting venues across the state. About 5 pm, I was reviewing our base statement and discovered we had made a major error.
The cost of living increase a week was for a FAMILY and not for an individual. How we made this error I could not tell, but mathematics has never been my strong suit, although Claude, as an accountant, should have picked this up much earlier.
No matter whether it was a public holiday,
if a client needed assistance it was provided.
We discussed what action we should take. My advice to Claude was to say nothing. Instead we immediately altered the planning kits we were sending across the state to include the correct information and a note pointing out the error we had made. We never used those incorrect calculations again.
However, for the next six months of the campaign, each of the Government’s poorly written media statements denied that the cost of living in distant country regions would cost each individual $1.60 a week. This, of course, only reinforced the opposition to the Government’s plan (you cannot trust governments). How naive was that?
It was interesting to work with Claude – a workaholic. The first morning after our media launch, he phoned me at home at 6.30am and woke the family. The next morning was 5.30am. On the third morning we slept well. I had disconnected the phone the night before!
It was a long and exhausting campaign but it was exciting. I met and renewed acquaintanceships with many politicians on both sides of the political fence, although the major contacts, were Renfrey (Ren) deGaris, from the South-East, and Ross Story from the Riverland (both leading lights in the Legislative Council).
Finally, the Legislative Council felt that public support was overwhelming and threw out the Bill – and my future as a specialist in legislative matters was established. (In those days, the Liberal & Country League held 16 of the 20 seats of the Legislative Council, and Ren, particularly, was very cautious about how they exercised that power to amend or reject legislation.) During that exercise I worked long hours, for six or seven days a week. This set a pattern for the rest of my working life, especially when Barbara and I established our business. No matter whether it was a public holiday, if a client needed assistance it was provided.