Scent and corporate sensibility

Would you swallow the company line if it came with a cut-glass accent? David Aaronovitch on the PR babes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Louise White was getting up my nose. It was bad enough listening to a bishopintoning his objections to the lottery: the size of the jackpot was immoral, addiction to gambling was pernicious, the expectations aroused unworthy ... but at least the Right Reverend, however sanctimonious, was trying to do right. I knew he worked among the poor and downtrodden, as bishops do, and was raising some valid questions on this TV news bulletin.

But what about Louise? She was black-clad, early to mid-thirties, finishing- school accent, a wide and insincere smile and banal phrases about how the whole nation was "having fun". Here was the venerable (if slightly priggish) prelate being dismissed in two glib lines by someone whose life experience could probably be packed in a Louis Vuitton overnight bag. It was wrong, somehow.

Within a minute I was engulfed in my own prejudices. Poor Louise, the public face of Camelot, had personified an inchoate series of images I was forming about what some might call "PR bimbos".

First there had been Julia Carling, making a fortune out of PR by her late twenties despite being described as "not outstanding, or wildly popular" at school. This was the woman who issued a statement saying that "it hurts me very much to face losing my husband in a manner which has become outside my control". Excuse me? Was it the control or the husband that she regretted losing?

Colleagues had already recounted tales of Sloaney PR harpies, aggressively promoting their clients' books or products with a mixture of philistinism and incompetence. I got a chance to see for myself at a party last autumn. The room was equally divided between journalists and PR folk. The PR women were either pretty or knew how to make the best of themselves. They launched into conversation with enormous, almost reckless brio, smiled continually, asked questions. Bliss! Who knew what (were one not married) might happen?

What actually happened was that as soon as they spotted anyone slightly more important or powerful, it was a "nice meeting you, Derek" and disappearance in a vaporous trail of 24, Faubourg. These were cold, shallow people, I decided. And not that clever.

From then on I tripped over them everywhere. More and more of the debate about companies, products and ethics seemed to be conducted on terms laid down by these immaculate apologists.

But is this perception correct? According to one senior woman PR (a good one, by all accounts) it is. "Twenty years ago companies didn't bother much with PR. So they might employ some old bloke, usually a failed hack, who would buy the occasional G&T for his mates and ask them not to be too nasty if the firm's results were bad. Today companies are much more accountable. So we have many more PR executives and consultants out there."

But why are so many of them Sloaney gals? Gals, because the first British companies to cotton on to the new realities were those that sold predominantly to women. The pacesetter was Van Den Berg, maker of Krona and Flora, which first employed two women to sit in an office answering queries about cooking with margarine. The approach worked. Sloanes, because they flattered the vanities of many a chairman and conformed to hazy notions of what constituted good speech and nice manners. Fit to be, say, Prince Edward's wife.

Even Sophie Rhys-Jones will have trouble making it to the top, though. At a certain point (late thirties, first child) it's THWUNK up against the glass ceiling. The big movers in the business - the Directors of Communications, shaping policy rather than mouthing it - are almost all men.

That doesn't stop the gals raking it in. In her late twenties a fairly average PR woman can earn over 50 grand, more than most of the journalists with whom they deal. I know of one who draws down pounds 75,000 at 35. A BBC acquaintance - and devout Catholic - discovered that the useless and lazy PR man from a water company that he was exposing was getting a three- figure salary. He promptly went on long retreat to a secluded abbey.

Such jealousy is misplaced, argues the respected PR woman. "Frankly, their job can be rather grim. Many find themselves day in, day-out defending pedigree cat foods from the charge that addictive substances are added to the chopped rabbit and asparagus flavours. And when things go wrong it's Sophie or Alice who get the blame." Furthermore, she says, the really good ones, such as Burson Marsteller's Alison Canning, are real strategic thinkers who can help companies to succeed.

Harrumph, I think, and phone up Louise White herself. Ten to one she'll shuffle me off on to the Camelot press office, pleading division of responsibilities. Wrong. Instead we engage in an enjoyable row. First she slags off the bishops for "whingeing and whining", when everyone is having so much "fun". But doesn't she accept that this is what bishops are for? "Sure. I mean, I respect the church," she says, "but they are out of touch with their parishioners on this one." Anyway, she adds hastily, Camelot is talking to the gambling help organisations to see what it can do.

Of course she accepts that there are somecasualties of lottery fever. "But do we want to be a society that always supports weak minorities, or one that gets them to stand on their own two feet?", she asks with a Gingrichian rhetorical majesty.

OK, she's no mere cipher, but doesn't she think it would be better if, say, the chairman of Camelot were to appear more often defending his company in public debate, rather than have her oleaginous PR-speak? Louise gets cross. "You're undermining my role as a senior person," she tells me. Then, "but we are discussing a more public role for senior executives." Louise learns quickly, and as we say goodbye I admit that some of my prejudice may be misplaced. But if we meet at a party, she'd better not call me Derek.

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