Obituary: Basil Saunders

Tim Traverse-Healy
Thursday 18 June 1998 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


BASIL SAUNDERS was one of Britain's pioneers of modern public relations in its path towards professionalism.

That he was the author of a popular booklet entitled Bluff Your Way in PR (1991) only served to cloud the fact that he was an accomplished practitioner and had handled programmes as varied as tourism, margarine, glass, and cattle food. But he became best known for his work in the realm of healthcare, pharmaceuticals and veterinary products.

His personal efforts and influence, in his capacity as Head of Public Relations Services at the Wellcome Foundation (1963-78), helped considerably to bridge the gap that existed between reticent scientists and researchers and representatives of the media whose job was to report and comment on such matters, and who were faced with reluctance bordering on ill-will.

But the pre-eminent values which shone through all his work were his humanity and his inborn sense of social conscience. By way of illustration: in the early Sixties he threatened to resign his directorship of a leading consultancy if it proceeded to handle the affairs of a prominent tobacco company. This sensitivity did not however deter him from advising a manufacturer of contraceptives who held the Royal Navy contract.

An early member, from 1954, of the then fledgling Institute of Public Relations, he served on its council in 1968 and on various of its committees. It was characteristic that, when chairman of its membership committee, he sat its professional diploma examination under a heavily disguised pseudonym: "to see if I can pass". He did with flying colours. He continued to serve as a trustee of the institute's benevolent fund until shortly before his death and ran quietly and personally a form of placement service to assist those less fortunate.

Basil Saunders was born in Fife, the son of Commander J.E. Saunders RN, who was listed as missing, presumed dead, in 1941 when Basil, aged 16, was attending Merchant Taylors' School. Two years later Basil Saunders joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Sub-Lieutenant. On demobilisation in 1946 he went up to Oxford University, and gained an MA in English and Modern Languages at Wadham College.

Fluent in French and with a working knowledge of German and Italian, Saunders spent a year teaching English at the College de Tarascon in 1950- 51. Throughout his life he remained an ardent francophile; the only headgear he ever owned (and frequently wore around town) was an outsize black beret.

Following a year as a trainee advertising executive in London and in New York he joined the staff of the US General Electric Company as a speech- writer. He later confided that he resigned when he found that he had drafted one speech quoting a second speech commending sentiments expressed in a third speech, all having emanated from his own pen.

He returned to England in 1954, and entered public relations. He served three years as Public Relations Officer of the British Institute of Management, five years with Pritchard, Wood and Partners (which later became Infoplan), the pre-eminent consultancy of the day, followed by his 14 years as Head of Public Relations of the Wellcome Foundation. Always one for a change and a challenge he took on the Director-Generalship of Aslib - the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux - from 1978 to 1980. Dealing with a divided loyalty membership and governing body he literally walked out of a tempestuous council meeting.

After a year as Public Relations Officer to the Arts Council in 1981, Saunders joined old colleagues from his Infoplan days, and spent the balance of his professional life from 1981-93 with Traverse-Healy & Regester, later Charles Barker Traverse-Healy.

His hatred of prejudice and pomposity was often misread by those against whom it was directed as a form of anti-establishmentarianism. Far from it. He held tradition and ritual in high regard. He wrote poetry and short stories for radio and from time to time gave an illustrated lecture, accompanying himself on the piano, entitled "Give Me that Old Time Musical Hall". His take-off of Noel Coward was a delight. He was the owner of a magnificent pianola and a stock of 1920s and 1930s rolls. Soirees at his north London home were fun affairs.

Saunders started out as a Quaker but in later life veered towards the High Church, probably influenced by his late wife Betty whom he married in 1957. She was the perfect counterpart; first, an unlikely crime reporter on the Daily Mirror and, later, the distinguished Deputy Editor of the Church Times. But Basil Saunders took his religion lightly. He once opened a public ecumenical gathering with the phrase "Friends, Romans and Countrymen".

In nearly every way he was the antithesis of the popular perception of a successful public relations executive. Politically he was liberal, emotionally a humanist, and sartorially a near disaster. He was an undoubted intellectual; his curiosity was unbounded and matched his enthusiasm for life.

Tim Traverse-Healy

Basil Saunders, public relations consultant: born 12 August 1925; Public Relations Officer, British Institute of Management 1954-57; Public Relations Executive, Pritchard, Wood and Partners (later Infoplan) 1957-63; Head of Public Relations Services, Wellcome Foundation 1963-78; Director-General, Aslib (Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux) 1978- 80; consultant, Traverse-Healy Ltd 1981-84; director, Traverse-Healy and Regester (later Charles Barker Traverse-Healy) 1984-90; married 1957 Betty Smith (died 1997; two sons, four daughters); died London 10 May 1998.

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