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PR in the 90s: A survivor’s story

Mark Perkins

MHP’s Creative Director Mark Perkins cut his teeth in public relations 25 years ago. These are his recollections of a pre-web era when the fax machine, phone and humble glue-stick were still the main tools of the trade.

In almost every agency or in-house team there will be a veteran or two from PR in the 1990s. Some of them, given enough coffee and visual prompts, may still even have something to contribute to day-to-day affairs. Ask them about this era and they will doubtless rattle off some stories in the same way grandparents did about the war. You can count to three before the first mention of boozy journalist lunches and how, during the Dotcom boom, paper millionaire clients would their take agency teams out on their extravagant expenses before the bubble burst.

Scrape beneath that surface and there’s a lot more to it than that. As one of those still standing when my back and knees permit, recollections of this era can still provoke a mixture of awe, astonishment and incredulity among the majority of my colleagues raised and operating in an era of social media, smart phones, beards and pulled pork. So here’s 10 relics about the PR in the Nineties that may be news to you and a salute to those who served: those who wore combat trousers, drank Red Bull and vodka, faxed press releases from dawn till dusk and for whom national print was king.

1. Media directories

Before electronic databases such as Gorkana staff had to rely on giant bound paper directories to compile media lists which were typed up manually by a junior. The directories looked like Yellow Pages, were out of date within weeks of publication and there were never enough to go around. As a result compiling media lists was the PR equivalent of building the Burma railway. Almost always, the primitive PC would crash before the log of names and contact details had been saved, resulting in the need to repeat the whole process late into the night, punctuated by quiet sobbing and chain-smoking at one’s desk (see 6).

2. Barbara Argument

The only gallows humour highlight of compiling a media list was the chance to bask in the glow that the Women’s Editor and Agony Aunt at the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette was called Barbara Argument. For real. A mythic figure known to all who embarked upon a regional sell-in, securing coverage with The Argument meant double-points.

3. The fax machine

In the absence of email press releases were sent by fax. A major launch to nationals with tailored regional releases could result in 200 faxes being sent in single file. We had a system: one person would send a fax and then another would ring the journalist five minutes later to follow-up. This could take time as a news desk fax number was always constantly engaged because every other agency in London was also sending exactly the same press release about the nation’s favourite Spice Girl at the same time.

Once the fax had been eventually dispatched it was guaranteed that the journalist, if they deigned to speak to you, had not seen the press release. This dashed initial idealistic beliefs that every press release sent was a salvo fired into the heart of a national newsroom. The penny dropped when a Sun hack told me that they had just one fax machine in the news room and the incoming releases landed in a giant bin. If your phone call prompted some interest a newspaper intern would be dispatched to sift through the detritus to retrieve it.

4. Trannies and film

Today if you want a client image to be seen by millions, you simply take it, share it on social media and it can go viral in a heartbeat. Send it to a national online title and it’s up in minutes. In the pre-digital era a photo shoot or stunt would happen and then we waited for the films to be developed and sent back to the agency as trannies (short for transparencies as opposed to a hairy builder in a dress). Then the trannies (please, no giggling at the back) would be individually dispatched to picture desks by couriers.

At one media event our photographer inadvertently tossed the roll of film into a case of two-dozen other undeveloped films. In order to find it he had to go back to his dark room and develop about 15 films, one-by-one, by hand with a raging Account Director phoning every five minutes to scream at him in a process that lasted roughly six hours. We never saw him again.

5. The company laptop

Working in an agency of 80 people, the company had one laptop which was a revolution in tech and the size of Canada. The company laptop was primarily used by senior management and solely for pitches and special client presentations. It was therefore not ideal when, with the team assembling on the platform at Milton Keynes station for a pitch, we established the company laptop was still on the train and wending its way to Wolverhampton with the pitch doc embedded within. There was no backup. Neither were ever seen again.

6. Smoking

In 1990’s people still smoked at work. They smoked at their desks and they sometimes smoked in meetings. Think Mad Men but in combat trousers. Staff had to request to work in designated non-smoking rooms.

One boss operated in such a permanent smog that visitors could be forgiven for thinking that Saddam Hussein really had launched a chemical warfare attack. During meetings in her office one was never entirely sure who else was in the room nor how to find the way out. A visibly shaken client once asked ‘How many do you smoke a day?’ and she replied, with a flick of her lit cigarette, ‘As many as I can fit in’.

7. The Fleet St Refugee

Peculiar to this era and now extinct in agency life. Spat out by Fleet St and shovelled up by PR agencies these part-pickled hacks were hired on a fabricated, boastful premise of in-roads with editors. The Fleet Street Refugee spoke with a gruffness that made Vinnie Jones sound like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Their solution to every client brief was ‘Get some good looking girls, tight tops, but keep it classy!’. Always classy.

The only people in the PR world to use words like ‘Scoop’ and ‘Splash’ to describe impending coverage that never materialised, Fleet Street Refugees called the pub ‘The Office’ where they would spend most of the day telling interminable stories about Kelvin, Piers and Max (Clifford, not Hastings). They were never to be left alone with clients, junior female staff or the company credit card and were never seen again after an emergency meeting with HR. Now most likely to be found either running a bar in Tenerife or managing a local press office for UKIP. Whenever they hear the word Twitter they will loudly claim how they coined the phrase ‘social media’ but no one paid attention at the time.

 8. The celebrity photo call

This was where the Fleet Street Refugee went into overdrive with the ‘Pretty girls, tight tops but keep it classy’ approach. You had your press release, your product photo and so the other piece in the comms jigsaw was a celebrity holding said product for the press. Because we couldn’t send the images we’d have to stage it as ‘an event’ and invite national picture desks to send a photographer down. The sell-in would be along the lines of: ‘We’ve got a new Barney the dinosaur toy being held by Leslie Ash and a child’. And they came! (A low point in any planning was discovering that we only had enough budget for Paul Ross so we’d do a survey instead).

9. Google

Didn’t exist. That’s right, a working world without Google. Your alternative resource for research was a telephone. With this piece of equipment resourcefulness dictated masquerading as an apologetic student writing a dissertation. Under this guise you could grill sympathetic journalists (double points for Barbara Argument) on the brand or business sector you were researching. In high-risk stakes journalist could dial 1471 and rumble you leading to all sorts of apologetic grovelling and backtracking.

10. Food and drink

Today it’s all about Peruvian cerviche, grits, goats head soup and edible insects but in the 1990s Wagamama was ‘out there’, the closest thing we had to Noma. Everyone drank a hip, new innovation in coffee to be fashionable: they were called lattes. Mostly we eat depressingly austere dough-based products from Benjy’s, which is what Pret a Manger would be like if operated by the Khmer Rouge. The Atlantic Bar & Grill was where everyone wanted to be seen and brag about rubbing shoulders with Liam, Kate and Sadie. I went there just once – a Dotcom client on expenses – and rubbed shoulders with Normski. I had finally arrived but the party was already over.