They don’t make them like that anymore

For many years historians of PR have been identifying a much more complex history than the traditional one focussing on Bernays, the US, the arrival of Gen MacArthur in Australia and so on.

But while we push our knowledge of the industry back further it is also interesting to look at the changes in PR and the changes in the backgrounds and approaches of those who practise it.

Two recent books, and one sad death, highlight a particular brand of PR operative and the reality that we don’t make PR people like that any more.

Noel Tennison, who died recently, was someone for whom the phrase larger than life might have been invented – not that it wasn’t also appropriate in physical terms. Noel wrote two sort of memoirs – My Spin in PR and, most recently The Life of Every Party. The latter is a cross between personal memoir and his life in politics.

His father, Big Jim Tennison, was a 17 stone storeman in the Queensland Railways but was also a leading national rugby league selector and administrator. Just as, in modern PR you don’t often come across people like Noel, so in modern professional sports administration you don’t often come across people like his father.

Noel was a tribal Catholic, worked variously as a public servant, labourer and SP bookmaker (a trade also pursued by the blog’s grandfather) before getting involved in the National Civic Council; actually meeting MacArthur; the Federated Clerks Union; and, campaigning for the DLP as well as being a DLP candidate under the pre-1972 slogan of “It’s Time for Tennison.” His book throws incidental light on how much the tactics and culture of the NCC resembled that of the Communists against which they were crusading, as well as Noel’s emerging strategic awareness, as demonstrated in a fierce FCU/NCC battle in which he was pragmatic enough to see that supporting an ALP aligned trade unionist was a legitimate practical approach. His arguments for this position would be just as appropriate today in arguments about left-wing infantilism in the context of Corbyn and Sanders.

But his more traditional PR career stated when he came to Melbourne to work in Australia Post PR and was engaged for casual PR work for Dick Hamer by Peter Howson. For people who never had the fortitude to plough through Howson’s monumental (and monumentally boring) memoir take a quick look at page 204 of The Life of Every Party to see what Howson was like. Noel worked with Hamer on his radio technique and played a prominent role in the very successful 1973 State election campaign where he demonstrated that wit and style (when you have a candidate like Dick Hamer it makes it easier of course) have a great role to play.

Noel went on to work for the Liberal Party machine and then set up a consulting firm, Media Relations, after an eventful time in business with a former Hamer staffer, Peter Stirling. Over the years the firm worked for most of the right controlled unions from the FCU to the SDA. In between time he worked for a variety of political party clients – including a stint working for both the DLP and the National Party in the same election campaign – with the knowledge and approval of both parties. In his work for the Nationals he pioneered the new – but now hackneyed – concept of a ‘plan for the State’ although calling it a Blueprint was a trial to Nationals leader, Peter Ross-Edwards, who had problems with his ‘l’s’.

Perhaps what characterised Noel’s PR work most clearly was the emphasis on creativity and imagination and a wonderful way with words. While it is important to understand the channels of communication it is even more important to craft the words and images which use them. And, given the frequent hostility between journalists and PRs (except when the retrenched journos are looking for jobs), it is remarkable that Noel was Melbourne Press Club President for many years. Equally surprising, at least to some, was that the ex-NCC operative was a great advocate of courtesy and candour as opposed to the rancour of much modern politics. His attitudes to the Murdoch media and Alan Jones might also be surprising to some – but not to anyone who remembers that late in their lives Bob Santamaria and Clyde Cameron found much in common in opposition to neo-liberal policies.

Toni Muzi Falconi is, unlike Noel, fortunately still with us. His book Glow Worms is a slim volume but packed with informative material about European PR. Readers might be shocked about his 20 year association with Phillip Morris although in the 1960’s the blog also worked for them – if only on their sponsorship of an art exhibition, Air, at the National Gallery of Victoria although the blog’s main duties were organising supplies of pot for the US curators and taking them to parties.

Few PR people today would have some of Toni’s experiences in terms of his tangential work with issues and people such as Calvi, Banco Ambrosiano, Andreotti, Berlusconi, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the successor broad left party (PDS), Steve Jobs, university teaching, telecommunications, sustainability and a long association with professional PR organisations – Italian, European and international.

As the son of an Italian aristocrat and a diplomat Toni Muzi Falcone comes from a different background to that of Noel Tennison. But they both have in common qualities which differentiate them from many practitioners – qualities which remind us that they rarely make PR people like that anymore.