Tag Archives: PR

Reflections on a lifetime in campaigning, public affairs – and changing the world

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.

Campaigner (with thanks to http://www.performingartistes.co.uk/artistes/345/des-wilson.htm)

Campaigning legend Des Wilson

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.

Farnborough Community Centre

Farnborough Community Centre

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.

Des will be speaking at the University of Greenwich on Wednesday 12th March, from 5.00-7.00pm.  If you want to join us, register for a place/ticket here:

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

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.

On the back of his work for the Liberal Democrats, Des became director of public affairs for Burson-Marsteller, and subsequently, director of corporate and public affairs for BAA from 1994-2000.

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.


Guest Speaker series: PR @ University of Greenwich

With Frances being crowned the winner of the BBC’s ‘Great British Bake Off’ 2013 over Kimberley and Ruby this week, the University of Greenwich PR Fraternity is delighted to kick-off its guest speaker series for this academic year with the winner of the previous series, John Whaite.

John Whaite drops in on Nick Grimshaw's BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show

John Whaite drops in on Nick Grimshaw’s BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show

As well as discussing his experiences on the series and his views on how this one went, John will be discussing what it was like managing the media attention that the victory brought in its wake, and the consumer PR for his subsequent cookery book  and Greenwich-based cookery classes.

John Whaite makes the cover of Attitude magazine

John Whaite makes the cover of Attitude magazine

Immediately afterwards, John will be judging the audience’s attempts to bake, so if want to join us, bring along your buns, cup-cakes – even pretzels – for a cake-fight to the finish.  So please join us – Wednesday 30th October at 12.00pm to hear John Whaite in conversation, and for a bit of a network over a taste test afterwards.  Email me for venue details – p.a.simpson@greenwich.ac.uk .

Our PR Fraternity 2013-14 PR Speaker series to date is:-

John Whaite speaks as well as bakes!

John Whaite speaks as well as bakes!

Wednesday 30th October:   John Waite; Winner, BBC Great British Bake Off, 2012.

Greenwich graduate Igrid Asoni returns from Marrakech to discuss her PR experiences

Greenwich graduate Igrid Asoni returns from Marrakech to discuss her PR experiences

Tuesday 5th November:  Ingrid Asoni; founder, Asoni Haus lifestyle management, event design and PR management company with a focus on London and Marrakech.

Simon Long welcomes Nicki Minaj to Kiss FM's Central London studios

Simon Long welcomes Nicki Minaj to Kiss FM’s Central London studios

Friday 29th November:  Simon Long; Deputy Programme Director, Kiss FM.

After a pivotal role at the BBC, Andy Parfitt now advises Saatchi & Saatchi on talent issues

After a pivotal role at the BBC, Andy Parfitt now advises Saatchi & Saatchi on talent issues

Wednesday 12th February:  Andy Parfitt; Executive Director (Talent), Saatchi & Saatchi; Chair of UK charity, Youth Music; Former Controller, BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra. Held in conjunction with the university’s Big Picture lecture series.

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

Wednesday 12th March:  Des Wilson; campaigning legend: Launch Director, homelessness charity, Shelter; Director of Public Affairs, Royal Shakespeare Company; led campaign against lead in petrol at Clear; Chaired Friends of the Earth; pioneering campaigner for freedom of information; President of the Liberal Party; leading role in campaign for Sunday trading; ran Paddy Ashdown’s General Election campaign in 1992; consultant with Burson Marstellar; Director of Corporate & Public Affairs at British Airports Authority until 2000.  Held in conjunction with the university’s Big Picture lecture series.


If you think John’s media profile is all Radio 1, This Morning and Heat, he was even on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’ discussing Fraces’ victory the night it was broadcast (26mins 14 seconds in).

If you are not a member of the University of Greenwich PR Fraternity, and are interested in finding out about becoming a member or supporter, and joining us at our events, do drop me a line at p.a.simpson@greenwich.ac.uk

Bad smell

The recent campaign by Andrex has left me a little bemused.

I don’t think I can be accused of being a prude.  And as the theme of this blog will testify, it has not been unknown for me to have an unnatural interest in toilet health.


This campaign appears to think it is extremely clever.  It toys with one of those last areas of taboo in modern life that has otherwise been turned over to exhibitionism.  By attempting to generate a debate on how, not to put too fine a point on it, we ‘wipe our backsides’ it goes somewhere that we just do not want to go in public.

Andrex wants to know how you wipe your bum

Andrex wants to know how you wipe your bum

Conventional marketing communications theory would say, “brilliant!”  The implication is that the shock value of seeing people talking about how they wipe their bum will grab our attention, watch the advert, and buy the toilet roll.  And by engaging us in social media, by asking us to choose whether we ‘fold‘ or ‘scrunch‘, it deepens our relationship with the brand.

For some time, I’ve reflected on whether advertisers may be forced to abandon the traditional ‘message effect’ of the persuasion tools of humour, guilt and fear, in favour of the more physiologically grounded effect of disgust, whether moral or physical.  In an increasingly noisy environment, such effects are less easy to avoid than the traditional ones more grounded in psychology.  I’ve had Kelly, D (2011) by my bedside, but never seem to get the guts to read it.  Maybe the Andrex campaign is the excuse I need.

Apologies for the imagery (Andrex planted it there), but am I the only one for whom this argument leaves ‘skidmarks’?  If they needed to grab your attention, I could understand, but they don’t.  As a loyal Andrex customer, I’m left bemused, and feeling as if I should switch to another brand.

If the campaign had been run with a PR element to it, I would have been much more sympathetic to it.  Do we really believe Andrex ‘give a shit’ whether we ‘fold‘ or ‘scrunch‘?  If they did, and it was a genuine conversation, perhaps it would work.

A genuine cause, rather than just getting the tills ringing

A genuine cause, rather than just getting the tills ringing

Maybe if the effort had been linked to something more substantial, such as an awareness raising campaign in conjunction with Beating Bowel Cancer, or another charitable campaign on sanitation, I would have been a lot more sympathetic to it.  There could have been much more active media relations and social media activity on the basis of this charitable ‘CSR’, and what is often called the ‘managed controversy’ discussed earlier that would help secure column inches, as well as people talking, for the right reasons.  There are links to charities on the Andrex website, but nothing above and beyond their usual work, and nothing tied in with this campaign.

Instead, I’m left feeling like this is a cheap stunt on Andrex’s part, and as such, it leaves me with a bad smell.  Here endeth the toilet humour.

Kelly, Daniel (2011) “Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust”, Massachusetts: MIT Press

Top notch

With a subject area like Public Relations, it is vital to be able to bring to bear scenarios from professional practice, and top-notch speakers who can grab students’ interests.  This can be with a view to providing the arena for deep reflection on the relevance of theoretical concepts discussed on the course – and for students to be able to develop their own new solutions to creative problems and responses to emerging trends.

This term is already set to be an exciting one for the PR and Communications degree at the University of Greenwich welcoming guest speakers who turn heads and inspire such reflection.

Colleen Harris (here commentating on the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on ABC News)

Topical, with the discussions around invasion of privacy associated with KateDuchess of Cambridge, and separately, Prince Harry (ahem!), Colleen Harris will talk to PR students at the University of Greenwich on Friday 16th November.  Colleen is a former Press Secretary to HRH Prince of Wales, and the Princes William and Harry.  She has served on the Press Complaints Commission, as a senior press officer across Whitehall (including at Number 10), and was Director of Strategy and Communications at the Commission for Racial Equality.

Weber Shandwick CEO EMEA, Colin Byrne

On Tuesday 16th October, Colin Byrne, CEO, EMEA of world-leading public relations agency Weber Shandwick will be dropping by the world heritage site that is home to the University of Greenwich to share his latest insights on trends in the industry.

In “Top trends for PR in the engagement era” he will discuss how, in considering influences on their brand’s sociability, most public relations executives look to external forces – winning the approval of the right media, achieving a target number of “Likes” on Facebook and dominating coverage of certain topics. Internal strategy, planning, cohesiveness and comfort in the digital space must come first; internal focus and consistency of vision are areas where substantial improvement must be made by most brands.

Ken Deeks

On Friday 23rd November we have the pleasure of welcoming Ken Deeks, who has insight gathered from straddling the PR/journalist divide in his career.  He started off as a journalist working mainly for local newspapers as well as a spell on the Daily Mirror, before moving into PR. For several years, Ken ran a series of PR companies, operating mainly in the tech sector, including Kaizo. He then set up his own communications company KDL, which he ran for five years, before joining up with Paul Smith and Richard Baines to create The Amber Group. Ken is also the founder of Byte Night, the tech industry’s largest charity event.

Bell Pottinger Business and Brand’s MD, Kevin Read

Kicking off the term is Kevin Read, MD of Bell Pottinger Business and Brand, who will be speaking at our opening day Induction Event on Thursday 20th September.

Kevin’s main focus at Bell Pottinger Business and Brand is on resolving complex, international communications problems, shaping fresh, modern strategies and implementing integrated solutions that are typically spearheaded by PR.

He has more than 15 years senior consultancy experience and specialises in strategic planning and providing senior level business counsel. He has worked extensively for leading global brands (HSBC, British Gas, Unilever), a wide array of industry bodies (Nuclear, Food, Telecomms, Cosmetics, Drinks), government departments, NGOs and professional services firms.  At the induction event for University of Greenwich PR students, he will be addressing the theme of creativity.

Not bad – and term hasn’t even begun.  I couldn’t help blogging about it.

Team PR: You’ll have a meantime at the University of Greenwich

It’s that time of year when A-Level results become clear, and Clearing becomes an option for those whose results were not what they expected.

I teach on the BA (Hons) Public Relations and Communications at the University of Greenwich – and if that is the subject area you are considering for study, particularly in London, let me make sure you have all there is to know about our degree.

We’re based in one of the most beautiful parts of London – you may have seen us on the TV for the last few weeks as one of the Olympic 2012 venues, and soon to be the same for the Paralympics.  It is truly amazing.

The Old Royal Naval College – home to the University of Greenwich – provides the backdrop to Olympic and Paralympic activities in 2012.

One of the most important stresses of our course is employability.  You will find graduates of our relatively new degree working, amongst other destinations as a Publicist on BBC and E4 programmes at entertainment agency Ian Johnson Publicity, and an Account Executive at Kaizo.  From an Account Executive at Bell Pottinger, to one at The Good Agency.

Students take work experience placements while on the degree, with what they have learnt from those times being assessed as part of a course on professionalism.  Recent student PR placements have included Accessorize, Burton, Clifford French, Macmillan Cancer Support, Sotheby’s and Twestival.

On the video you will see two of the other key lecturing staff on the degree amongst the many others – programme leader, Nicky Garsten , and Mark Phillimore, who runs the MA too.

As well as them, there are other experienced lecturers like Mandy Atkinson who make up the team, a number of specialist visiting lecturers, as well as a host of guest lectures during the year.  During the coming term, Colin Byrne, CEO EMEA of Weber Shandwick, one of the world’s biggest PR agencies is joining us to give a guest lecture.

Geographically, the Business School of which we are a part sits right across the Thames from Canary Wharf and London’s prime business district.

And then I suppose there’s me.  I’d like to think that not too many PR degree courses offer a lecturer who teaches the same way as me.  In a former life, I was head of PR at BBC Radio 1, and I will use many of the case studies of sex, drugs and rock and roll from my little black book to illustrate lectures, whether on crisis management, or media relations.  As well as the corporate profile of the station, I managed the profile of anyone from Chris Moyles and Tim Westwood to Sara Cox, Trevor Nelson and Scott Mills.

Radio 1’s record-breaking breakfast host Chris Moyles hugs successor Nick Grimshaw

I’ve also worked in political PR and in government, supporting MPs and government ministers.  And as a freelancer consultant, my clients have included London radio station Kiss 100, music technology app Shazam, broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and radio industry trade body, the Radio Academy – you try managing a photo-call with George Michael.

I put a big priority on getting to know my students – this is public relations – and using my experiences and contacts to their best advantage.

I think our course content and approach, the lecturers on the course, and our unique location in London makes the University of Greenwich the best if you are considering studying Public Relations and Communications in London for 2012/13.  Plus the degree is accredited by the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations), and is a partner university of the PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association).

If you are involved in Clearing – you know what you’ve got to do!  And I hope there might be a chance I’m teaching you next term.  Good luck, whatever you decide to do.

For her contribution to causing a crisis…..

It is difficult to know what to post on the subject of the News Corporation ‘crisis’ without it sounding like cliche heaped upon cliche.  But for someone who professes to teach public relations, and who has been known to provide counsel, I feel it would be remiss of me not to put some words together.  My thoughts come in three broad themes.


In many instances, a crisis is not born of events themselves, but of an organisation’s reaction to those events.  Indeed, it can be its “failure to meet the social norms and expectations of stakeholders” (Coombs, 2000, p.77).

Rupert Murdoch - not sure which 'social norm' has the bigger breach: the spread-eagled legs for the camera; or the almost knee-high socks with shorts combo; or perhaps it goes much deeper than that. Photo - Telegraph

Rupert, Rebekah and James have felt that it’s ‘okay’ not to have to answer for what has taken place on their watch, especially when it’s involved the families of murdered children, fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.  To not feel the need to account for yourselves is almost as big a sin as the original crimes – thus compounding the crisis.

Almost childlike, they have felt that somehow, if they hide, it will go away.  If they don’t engage in the basics of relationship management – whether through media relations, public affairs, internal communications or investor relations – it will blow over.  Instead, they have just created bigger audiences for their original crisis, and added to their gripes.

A crisis demands “outside-in thinking”.  Instead, we have just seen a bunker mentality.

Sacrificing the News of the World appears to be a reflex reaction, dressed up as thought through strategy.  “If we throw the baying crowds a piece of meat, perhaps that will satisfy them, draw a line, and they will go away”.  Except it still didn’t answer any of the questions people had about past wrong-doing, and instead destroyed a piece of the News Corp empire that arguably was working well.  The News of the World need not have been closed down.


The three senior executives at the heart of the scandal have demonstrated a woeful understanding of the basics when  it comes to their own use of the media, which has usually involved them shunning interview opportunities (adding to the air that they have something to hide), or running away from a pack of journalists and cameras (in the process, creating the most defensive of photo-opportunities).

Rebekah Brooks and another defensive non-photo opportunity

This is from professionals (some of whom have been journalists themselves, so should know better) who lead some of the biggest media titles, many of whom are the catalyst for a crisis in organisation when they put allegations to them to ‘stand up a story’.  You would think they would be the experts at knowing how to handle a crisis, having seen it from the inside?  Think again.

Why no press conferences?  Why after hiding from the press for so long do you give an interview to only one publication?  Why do you have to resort to to advertising and letters to say your sorry?  When did you stop being a human being?


Building from the last point, it is a cautionary tale about organisations assuming that high-profile former journalists always make the best PRs.  Some journalists make fantastic PRs – the ones that understand that the discipline is more than just media relations,and is about more than individual transactions.  At its heart, PR is about reputation.

Whether it is media professionals’ shocking handling of the media themselves, or the arrest of journalists turned PRs for their alleged involvement in this ‘scandal’, public relations needs to maintain a constant eye over standards in its own profession.  The discipline’s reputation itself is never that high – and the last thing it needs is to be brought into the eye of this storm by the actions of the likes of Andy Coulson and Neil Wallis.


While writing this blog, it has been announced that Rebekah Brooks has finally resigned as Chief Executive of News International.  It may be a little late for the organisation to take control of the crisis, even though we have finally seen someone held accountable.

What price reputation? UAL's Rector, Nigel Carrington with Rebekah Brooks

Which brings me to the rather limp reaction of University of the Arts, London to calls for them to strip Rebekah Brooks of the honorary degree they awarded her last year for her ‘contribution to journalism’.  It was on behalf of constituent college, London College of Communication (LCC), from which Brooks originally graduated.

Rather than acknowledging the concern of academics, students and external audiences to how this award looks with hindsight, a university spokeswoman told the Guardian that they awarded honorary degrees to those judged to have made “considerable contributions to the creative and cultural industries“, while head of college at LCC, Sandra Kemp emailed all staff, warning it was inappropriate to comment while official investigations were ongoing (err… they will be for some time), and warning that all media inquiries should go to the university press office (err.. this to a college that includes countless journalism and PR students).

Excuse me, what about the bigger issues?  Am I missing something here – isn’t the university worried about it’s association with what will become the biggest scandal of our generation.  Perhaps the degree would be more aptly re-awarded for her contribution to causing a crisis?

With this year’s graduation ceremonies upon us, for the sake of avoiding its own crisis and denting its own reputation, London College of Communication/University of the Arts, London should withdraw her honorary degree.  You can join the Facebook group here.


Coombs, T. (2000) Crisis management: Advantage of a relational perspective. In J.A Ledingham & S.D. Bruning (eds) Public Relations as relationship management: A relational approach to public relations (pp.73-93), Mahwah, New Jersey:  Erlbaum.