Trevor Morris - The maverick academic

After more than 20 years in the PR industry Trevor Morris decided it was time for a change. Matt Cartmell finds out why.

Trevor Morris: The PR master
Trevor Morris: The PR master

Anyone who thinks of academics as stuffy old men in faded tweed jackets is in for a surprise upon meeting the University of Westminster's visiting professor of PR, Trevor Morris.

Morris, former CEO of the Chime PR Group, is dashing, moneyed and has more than a hint of Robert Wagner about him. He cuts an unusual figure in the hallowed halls.

'I'm not your regular academic,' he says. 'There are not that many walking around here in Armani suits.'

Since the 53-year-old threw in the towel at Chime in 2003, he has made a few eyebrow-raising life choices, including teaching history at Southfields Community College in Wandsworth.

Then, just as everyone expected him to sort his head out and go back to running huge PR companies, he came to Westminster, the first university to offer post-school education to working people, which celebrates its 170th anniversary this year.

Morris' contacts book has provided students with lectures from Tony Blair's former director of comms David Hill, plus Lord Bell and celebrity PR agent Phil Hall.

When not lecturing, he says he still does 'bits of consultancy' but will not reveal for whom - and no, it is not Bell Pottinger, he claims.

'I'd done PR for 25 years and I didn't feel I was going to get any better at it,' says Morris. 'I could say I wanted to put something back but also I wanted something new to stimulate me. I didn't want to become someone who did the same thing every year.'

The energetic Morris has two books coming out, both written with Westminster's senior lecturer in public communication, Simon Goldsworthy. PR - A Persuasive Industry? Spin, Public Relations, and the Shaping of the Modern Media is out in early November. Morris says it steers a route between how-to guides and damning exposes about how PR has de-toothed the press.

'I was trying to look at what PR is really like - the people in it, and how PR really interacts with society,' he says.

Public Relations for New Europe will be out at the same time, a follow-up to last year's Public Relations for Asia.

Like all good academics, Morris has a way with an epigram. He sums up opposing views of PR in three short sentences: 'What tends to happen is if you like it, it's a campaign. If you don't like it, it's PR. And if you really don't like it, it's propaganda.'

He also argues that PR is 'a symptom of democracy' - and while at Westminster he has been helping to educate visiting PROs from developing democracies. But can anyone really teach PR in the academic sense?

'There isn't a bank of knowledge that is essential to have and I don't think there ever will be,' he admits. 'One of the attractions is it doesn't demand qualifications. But to raise standards in PR you need some kind of academic basis.'

Would employers not rather see vocational experience on a CV than a university course?

'Yes, but that's true of a lot of other areas of study as well. There's a generation of people in agencies who have done the education route and will happily take them on.'

Morris thinks the world of PR will get a lot more serious in the future. He says the big players will be the ones who have an understanding of political and public affairs: 'Even areas such as fashion now have political elements.'

So are we going to see the death of all things fluffy? 'There will always be fluffy PR people, but the serious players will have to have a broader base than they used to have,' he answers.

Morris is sceptical of the current obsession with digital: 'It's a channel, it's not an audience. You don't have dedicated radio and TV PR people.' And he is scathing of CSR as well. 'It isn't anything new. On the consultancy side it's a nice new thing to sell. It's a bit of an "emperor's new clothes" thing.'

PR, he says, has hardly changed at all since the publication of Ross Irwin's The Image Merchants back in 1959. PROs, says Morris, are 'intelligent dilettantes' (a familiar phrase to anyone who read Morris' previous PRWeek profile back in 2002). 'They like jumping from one thing to another, they tend to be optimistic and socially outgoing. Whereas journalists tend to be more cynical. I don't see that changing a lot.'

What is refreshing about Morris is that he does not have an inflated sense of his own, or PR's, importance. As we stroll back to Oxford Circus tube station - he is heading to one of his mysterious consultancy jobs - he sums up the limits of teaching PR in another beautifully wrought sound bite: 'It seems PR will never become a profession. It will just become more professional.'

CV

2005: Visiting professor of PR, University of Westminster

2004: History teacher, Southfields Community College

2000: Sells QBO to Chime and becomes chairman of the Good Relations Group, then CEO of Chime PR Group

1995: Chairman, QBO

1984: Managing director, QBO

1982: Account director, Quentin Bell Organisation

 

MORRIS' TURNING POINTS

 

- What was your biggest career break?

Moving into PR in 1982. It was a fantastic time to move - Thatcher and the technology revolution, privatisation and deregulation. The changes in the media made PR more exciting. It was a fabulous time to make it into the industry.

- What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Be nice to people on your way up - you don't know if you might bump into them again on your way down. The other thing is those people could become a big client. Be nice to the PA.

- Who was your most notable mentor?

People who have influenced me include Winston Fletcher, Lord Bell and Adrian Wheeler.

- What do you prize most in new recruits?

You have to understand the broad public affairs environment. I also think people don't read widely enough. The mainstream media are very influential. If you're not reading far and wide it's going to be a limited career.

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