Is there anything you have done professionally as a PRO which makes
you blush with shame? If not, you have either led a sheltered life or
been lucky. Since confession is good for the soul, I must admit it. I am
haunted by the 1970s.
For the latter half of that blasted decade I was responsible for the
promotion of energy conservation. Indeed, I became known as ’Mr Save It’
- the Department of Energy official who tried very which way to persuade
the public to save energy. It all began during the miners’ strike of
early 1974 with the ’SoS’ - Switch off Something - campaign under a
different Government as the Ayrabs, as Lord Carrington described them,
increased the price of oil and gas twenty-fold.
I shudder when I think of Patrick Jenkin, one of the most decent
ministers I ever worked for, first advising everybody to ’brush your
teeth in the dark’ and then being found by the media to have his house
ablaze with light. But what brings a blush to my cheeks are the
arguments used in support of saving energy. We said that we must use
energy with the utmost care and efficiency because fossil fuels - coal,
oil and gas - were running out. Indeed, we forecast that the North Sea
would be dry by now. And look at it - still oozing black gold from every
We didn’t invent this argument. We advanced it on the considered advice
of an impressive array of experts. But, looking back, it did nothing for
the credibility of experts - or Government, ministers and PROs.
I am reminded of this embarrassing episode in my career by the news this
week that, thanks to a new emphasis on the teaching of the 3Rs,
educational standards among 11-year-olds have taken a great leap
forward. This prompted one education correspondent to condemn the
teaching establishment years ago for being wrong on five counts - for
abandoning traditional methods of teaching, stopping teachers standing
up in front of the class to teach, claiming that phonics - showing how
sounds are written - were inefficient, condemning learning by rote and
replacing academic rigour with play and ’discovery learning’.
How many PROs in education, forced to defend this bankrupt fashion in
teaching, are blushing today? These two examples of a hopelessly wrong
consensus lead me to one conclusion: just as we could do with a
journalistic Which? that tells us which medium gives us the most
accurate news and forecasts, so public relations would benefit from a
continuing independent analysis of the validity of our arguments and
what really happened compared with our dire prognostications. The threat
of ridicule could exercise a powerful restraint over loose minds and
tongues. And don’t say it can’t be done. The advertising industry has
the Advertising Standards Authority.