'I discovered how bad many PR people are'

Peter Hehir, 51, is now joint chairman of Porter Novelli International, the world's fourth largest PR firm, after selling Countrywide Communications to its parent company, Omnicom, for around pounds 12m
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The Independent Online
There were about 50 demonstrators picketing one of my clients, KP Foods, while I was visiting them a year ago. We had no idea what they wanted so I went out with one of the directors to invite their leader, who was wearing a peanut suit, in for a chat. He ranted and raved, but wouldn't come in, and as we returned to the building he ran in front of us and threw himself on his back shouting "violence, violence!" for the benefit of the cameras. We just kept walking, still none the wiser. A few days later I was watching television and saw comedian Mark Thomas - the one who took a tanker-full of water to Yorkshire Water claiming it was a gift from Ethiopia. He was the man in the peanut suit. He never did run the piece on KP Foods, though. Apparently we hadn't been outraged enough by his provocation.

Sometimes keeping your client out of the news is exactly what you want. But mostly in PR you're trying to get them coverage. One of the campaigns we're most famous for is Lymeswold cheese. But it happened almost entirely by accident. Another PR firm had helped launch it in 1980, and had got no media response at all.

A year later we had the account for Dairy Crest and were planning a private lunch with the agriculture minister and agricultural editors on a different subject when we got a phone call saying that Princess Anne - miserable during her divorce - was to visit the client's booth at the Royal Show. We arranged to have a photographer there, and told the MD to walk up to her with a tray of Lymeswold and say: "This is the first new English cheese in 200 years" and "please say cheese for the photographer." She beamed, and one of the Sunday papers ran the cheese story. We were inundated with calls and quickly turned the private lunch into a press conference on the cheese.

When I was a youngster I wanted to be a journalist, and went into PR mainly to move to London. My father was in the army so we had moved around a lot. I ended up at a grammar school in Scotland, where I was the only boy in the sixth form to take short hand and typing. In 1963 I started working for the local paper for pounds 5 a week. I got a job offer from the Glasgow Herald on the same day as one from the Milk Marketing Board. It was the chance to move away from home that decided the issue for me. I did eventually go back into journalism, as news editor of the Grocer, the trade magazine. That was where I discovered how bad so many PR people are.

I started Countrywide after two friends told me in 1972 they were setting up an agricultural import-export business and asked me to do their PR. I refused, but agreed that with their backing I would form my own firm and take them on as a client. They gave me pounds 1,500 from an overdraft they had secured on an exotic breeds farm in Oxfordshire.

One of the big regrets of my career is that PR is held in low esteem. That's largely because other PR companies are concerned with burnishing their clients' images rather than looking after their reputations. The difference is that reputation is based on what you do, as opposed to what you say. I believe that if there's a falsehood behind the message, in the long term the results will be negative.

But there are lots of other cases where companies have been caught out. Probably the best example comes from politics. The Conservatives are trying to improve their image right now, but their real problem is their reputation - and this is based on years of accumulated evidence. A related problem is that companies have several different audiences they have to talk to: customers, staff, shareholders and suppliers among others. Some try to tell different groups different things, or forget that what they say to one group will get around. A few years ago Sainsbury's, which was not one of our clients, ran a promotion saying they were going to freeze prices. The City promptly marked down its shares.

A problem of setting up in Banbury was that PR was supposed to come to London. Even local companies turned us down because we were not in the capital. In 1978 we gave in to the pressure and opened an office in London. Our biggest mistake was due to greed. We tried to expand the London operation 10 years ago by buying in part of another PR company, which was going bust. We took on the directors without checking their references. We had to sack one of them who was seriously damaging morale. But because she was quite talented at PR, she took about pounds 300,000 worth of business out of the company when she left. It was money we couldn't afford to lose at the time, as our rent had just jumped from pounds 18.50 a square foot to pounds 45. It pushed the London operation into losses, although the group as a whole stayed profitable.

By then, though, trust within the London office had been destroyed. We had to move key people down from Banbury and it took three years to restore the culture. The lesson I learned from that experience is to trust your gut feelings. When you hire someone, make sure they pass one important test: Do you really trust and like them?