throwback to the 90s image

Alison, our Managing Director, reminisces on the PR industry and how it has changed over the years.

Screening of the new Absolutely Fabulous movie (or Ab Fab as many of us would know it) has prompted an indulgent reflection on the past 20-plus years of the PR industry and the changes therein. Based loosely on well-known characters in the PR agency world at the time, as well as the supposed antics of members of Bananarama, the series, while painting a caricature of the industry, points to some of the reasons why the PR industry developed a few of the less savoury elements of its reputation through the 80s and 90s.

The jocundity of Eddie and Patsy’s world seems a ridiculous parody of a serious industry that generates many billions of dollars worldwide, in fact some $14bn at the last count. So how representative of the reality of those times is Ab Fab?

Imagine for a minute the challenge of media relations without the internet, email or social media.  The importance of face-to-face contact and strong personal relationships with journalists still can’t be underestimated but in those days, when the telephone, Royal Mail and an unreliable fax machine were the only forms of remote communication, the long-lunch had a very important purpose, for both PRs and journalists. It signalled the chance for PR people to build and maintain valuable working relationships (and friendships) that would reap benefits for their clients; and, for the journalists, the chance to get several good news stories for their pages (remember it was only print in those days!) in one meeting.  Editorial teams were larger and journalists were expected to spend more time out of the office than they are afforded today.  Press releases arrived by post, and would have to be re-typed of course, ready for laying out on the page, so a story gathered first hand and typed straight from a journalist’s short-hand notes was much more efficient.  Also, of course, they were more likely to get a valuable scoop after a few Spritzers!

The long liquid lunches of old are well and truly gone now, and the work-hard-play-hard ethos that was undoubtedly true of the time, is no longer expected or accepted, even in the still colourful fashion PR agencies of today. 20 years ago, young PRs were expected to work long hours, for little reward, so ‘happy hour’ at the local wine bar was a well-deserved break from the graft, as well as a good team bonding and contact sharing opportunity – no email, intranet or Slack in those days!  We still work very hard, and often days are long in PR agencies, but we undoubtedly have more emphasis on employee welfare and achieving a work-life balance.

In the early 90s it was very possible to get a foot in the door of an agency without a degree – with no more than a word processor, scissors, Tippex and a Pritt Stick, all executives had an assistant or secretary and this was a really great way to get in, learn the ropes and work your way up, fast, if you were prepared to put the hours in.  Jane Horrock’s satirical character, Bubble, is far from the reality of the hard-work and commitment required of these people, although there were undoubtedly a few twin-setted-Sloanes for whom the day-to-day reality didn’t quite match the imagined glamour of the industry.

In the 90s, for obvious reasons, it was useful to be close to the major media houses, most of which were London based. Today there is no advantage to being geographically close to Fleet Street or Southwark Street but there remains an element of misplaced client ego associated with ‘having’ a London agency.  In the 80s and 90s, agencies were expected to regularly entertain their clients, who would often travel to London for the occasion; while the agency’s creative input and black book of contacts were deemed valuable, so was the quality and quantity of alcohol they provided and claimed on client expense sheets – this was, after all, part of what the client was paying for, wasn’t it?

So, while we look back fondly on the shoulder-padded, big-haired, chain smoking, heavy drinking, air-kissing, “Darling” days, we are nonetheless glad they are long gone, and the industry’s reputation has moved on to something far more professional and strategic BUT this doesn’t mean it’s no fun anymore!  It just means the fun is maybe less damaging to your health!  There are still many big characters in our industry, it’s still a great career to choose and, at Conscious Communications, our wheels are still on fire!

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