This Christmas, PRWeek turns to the industry’s best-known Reverend – George Pitcher, the Luther Pendragon co-founder and curate at journalists’ Church St Bride’s – for some words of festive wisdom.
Fifty-two-year-old Pitcher is certainly cerebral. His impressive historical knowledge and expansive vocabulary make him the perfect guide for a tour of the Church. But he is mischievous too.
During our tour of St Bride’s gruesome ossuary (a repository for bones), for example, he picks up an 18th century cranium, still partially covered with tufts of hair, and waves it at the photographer. And it isn’t too long before conversation moves on to the time he photocopied his bottom and distributed hundreds of copies into the filing system of a former employer. But more on that later.
Pitcher moved into PR after a successful career as a journalist, setting up Luther Pendragon with former BBC reporter Charles Stewart-Smith as ‘two former journalists behaving badly out of a Dickensian apothecary in Smithfield’. The agency boomed during the 1990s, and was eventually sold very profitably via a management buyout in 2005.
While Pitcher was expanding the agency, he was also pursuing other interests. One of these was writing a ‘cathartic’ book called The Death of Spin, published in 2002.
Another parallel interest was Christianity. Although he did not come from a religious family, Pitcher was always interested journalistically, seeing it as ‘either the biggest story that had ever happened or the biggest con trick perpetrated on humanity. Either way, a fab story.’
He decided not to go to Selwyn College, Cambridge, to study theology, because he wanted ‘to take drugs and get laid’. Gradually however, via ‘a series of dark life events that I won’t bore you with’, Pitcher opened his dialogue with God. Towards the end of his time running Luther Pendragon, he decided to become a ‘worker priest,’ meaning he still draws his income from public affairs work.
Not that it was easy. ‘I flattered myself that they would burst into tears of gratitude and accept me immediately. But bloody hell, it’s harder to get into than The Garrick Club,’ he says.
Daily Telegraph consulting editor Rhidian Wynn Davies says Pitcher has a ‘cheeky waspish streak’ and – though he has unshakable Christian belief – ‘wears his faith lightly’, which makes him a very easy person to talk to about religion.
That said, Pitcher realises that some might think it odd that he has a Church full of journalists while his day job is to network with journalists. He insists the two vocations are separated by a ‘theological wall’.
What is important, he says, is that ‘I am somebody of the journalistic tribe who is not going to blush when somebody says bugger. And I won’t fall over when someone orders the second bottle of wine in a bar.’
Indeed it is difficult to imagine anything that would make Pitcher blush, though PRWeek’s surprise question about his photocopied bottom almost succeeds.
‘I thought that if someone was looking through the Bird’s Eye file for a feature on frozen foods 18 months later, and found a copy of George’s arse, then I would be remembered for longer,’ he explains.
Although Pitcher is extremely relaxed, it would be a mistake to see him purely as a jovial avuncular character.
David Wheeldon – head of public affairs at BSkyB and a former Luther Pendragon partner – says he ‘takes moderation seriously as an outlook on life. He can’t stand extremist positions and takes an ecumenical approach.’
Pitcher is disgusted by religious fundamentalism. He considers it ‘a corruption of the Christian faith to have people suggesting that it is exclusive, that there are minimum entry requirements, that this is the right way to be a Christian’. His version of Christianity ‘requires a broad pluralistic tolerance, not a narrow bigoted confined view of faith’.
His dislike of the Southern state Protestantism that has informed the neocon revolution in the US feeds into his new professional project – Bridgit Kildare.
Pitcher will team up with financial expert Richard Bridges in the UK and comms and security experts from the US. He will target American corporate clients expanding internationally.
‘The rehabilitation of corporate America is one of the most important things for 2008, with a democrat surge and an end to neoconservatism in the States,’ he says.
America’s image and its companies’ abilities to operate around the world is ‘critical’ for the world economy, argues Pitcher. ‘It will be lucrative for those who get it right.’
Next year, then, may see him spending more time working and slightly less time in the Church. But this Christmas he is concentrating on St Bride’s, whose 25 carol services, alone, will keep him busy.
Pitcher’s description of Christmas is certainly something to which Christians and non-Christians alike can relate. He says the festival is ‘indicative of the indomitable human spirit. Whatever happens to us there is something around and in mankind – or human kind – that will redeem it, that is looking after it, that will make it alright in the end.’
As for the Church, Pitcher says he thinks it needs to step up its communications, to ensure it communicates ‘what we are really about – not foam-flecked bigots and swivel eyes’.
‘Frankly such people just need their bottoms smacked. And then photocopied.’
What was your biggest career break? It was great to be industrial editor on a left of centre paper during the Thatcher era. I should have been industrial correspondent but I stamped my foot until I was editor, which was great when meeting MPs such as Cecil Parkinson. I also built a network of contacts, which was useful for Luther Pendragon.
What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder? Keep looking up and make sure the person in front of you is not stepping on your fingers. Actually the idea that there is a clear ladder is rubbish – it is more a load of scaffolding – you inch along for a while and then you move up a bit. Do not be fooled into thinking there is a natural rising path – that is too simplistic.
Who was your most notable mentor? Other than God? Probably Sandy Noble, my school chaplain, or David Sceats, the principal at my theological college. Both put theology strictly in the contextual sense, rather than academic. On the professional side, John Booth, the chairman of Luther Pendragon, who is a very wise man.
What do you prize most in new recruits? Someone who knows their own mind, independent of their employer and their clients. A strategic intellect coupled with a street fighter.
Chairman, Bridgit Kildare
Sale of Luther Pendragon, ordination as priest
Co-founder, Luther Pendragon
Industrial editor, The Observer
Financial journalist, The Observer
Various roles at Haymarket Business Publications