It’s not often someone can lay claim to have played a role, in no small part, in changing the world – and to a life whose record can provide such a rich set of reflections from which students of PR, communications and public affairs can learn so much – but Des Wilson is such a person.
I remember hearing from him at my first ever major political public meeting in 1988. It was in the illustrious setting of the Farnborough Community Centre (almost as glamourous as the setting for my first music gig in 1978 – that was Blackbushe Airport, but it was Bob Dylan, both local venues to my parents, but I digress). Des was taking part in the hustings for the first presidential contest of the then Social and Liberal Democrats, alongside the leadership contest between Paddy Ashdown and Alan Beith.
As ever, I didn’t back a winner. Despite having previously been the Liberal Party’s president, he didn’t win that contest (the party seemed to think that if we had an ex-Liberal leader, we had to have an ex-SDP president) – but it didn’t matter. By 1992, Des returned to a role much better suited to him, running Paddy Ashdown’s much lauded General Election campaign, for which he won a PR Week award for outstanding individual of that year.
It is one of the reasons I am personally so excited that the PR Fraternity, in conjunction with the University of Greenwich Big Picture series have secured Des Wilson to speak on campus this week over 25 years later. In fact, I was dumb-founded when I heard that he had accepted our invitation – such a major player, such a shifter of opinions. He’ll be reflecting on the lessons of decades of campaigning and public affairs experience – but I’m sure he’ll have something to say too about the current campaigning tactics of the Liberal Democrats since he (and I) long vacated that particular pitch.
In case you need reminding, or were born too late to know, Des helped set up the pioneering homelessness charity, Shelter, becoming its launch director.
In 1983, he became chairman of Friends of the Earth. Also during that decade, he took a lead role in the campaign that led to Freedom of Information legislation, and launched the Clear campaign that successfully removed lead from petrol.
Throughout that fifty year career, Des also had a career in journalism, numerous other positions in public affairs and campaigning, and served on numerous boards in the public sector, such as the British Tourist Authority, and Sport England.
Des is the latest in the series of high profile guest speakers secured by the University of Greenwich’s student-run PR Fraternity this year, whose members include the students of the BA (Hons) Public Relations & Communications, and the MA Public Relations.
Having recently welcomed Mark Borkowski; Megan Carver (who shared her wealth of experience with The Outside Organisation, and within the music industry); and Andy Parfitt – the remaining two speakers after Des will be MD of PR Squared, television and celebrity publicist Polly Ravenscroft, and head of PR for Sky One, Tessa Matchett.