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Like Dracula running the blood transfusion service

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In the mid-1990s, I was the subject of sustained abuse in the media and public eye, usually in the form of analogy.

“Like asking Al Capone to run the Chicago police department”

“Like leaving your cat to look after the goldfish and budgie when you go away on holiday”

“Like Dracula running the blood transfusion service”

It was nothing personal, you understand.

You see, from 1990-1995, I was first the PR consultant to and then the Director of Public Affairs at The Portman Group, the world’s first organization set up by the international drinks industry exclusively to address the undesirable, social aspects of alcohol.

At its inception, The Portman Group had three declared objectives: to promote sensible drinking, to tackle alcohol misuse, and to reduce alcohol-related harm. It was an organisation ahead of its time, a long-spoon, quasi-independent body that effectively did the CSR for the eight biggest booze barons. 90 percent plus of the beverage alcohol sold in the UK was produced by the eight founder members. Yet when it came into being in 1989, no-one had even heard of CSR.

There were a number of motive causes behind the foundation of the Group.

A strong sense that media and public perceptions of alcohol were spinning out of control and in a negative way, particularly after riots in the summers of 1987 and 1988 were said to be fuelled by alcohol. Then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd gave a notorious speech that sent a chill through the drinks industry, coining the new term “lager lout” in the process.

The new leadership of Guinness was looking to demonstrate that there was a lot of good in the drinks industry after all. Guinness was reeling from irregular financial behaviour around its takeover of Distillers, which lead to most of the board being removed and chief exec Ernest Saunders – along with three co-conspirators – serving prison sentences. Though that’s a story for another day.

And a desire to balance the debate in the public eye, wresting control away from single issue pressure groups and neo-temperance, anti-alcohol organisations.

Under the guidance of the public school headmaster of his generation, Westminster’s Dr John Rae, The Portman Group spent its modest but significant budgets wisely and soberly and gained access and influence in the alcohol debate. Of course, the analogies above – and many more – were thrown at the Group’s spokespeople whenever they appeared in the media spotlight. But we had thick skins, and, as the organisation became better known – for its approach, but particularly its action – the abuse trailed off, even if the suspicions of the health lobby did not.

We ran the national ProveIt! Proof of Age Card; we trained hundreds of on- and off-licensees in how to deal with and prevent trouble on their premises; we produced educational materials – for primary, secondary and university students; we funded research and intervention programmes in partnership with the Health Education Authority; and, we partnered with the Department of Transport on anti-drink drive campaigns. We did things, things that started to have impact.

I left in 1995, and the group and its leadership, its focus and its staff, its partners and its agencies morphed and changed. They changed with the times and the Zeitgeist, and a social aspects organisation under Blair and his successors was very different from one under Major. The organisation became increasingly self-regulatory, establishing a code for responsible marketing of alcoholic drinks products, a kind of specialised and focused ASA. Its public face became the DrinkAware campaign, and it focused a lot on issues like unit labelling.

Which was why I was interested – fascinated, even – to see that, nearly 30 years on, the international drinks industry in the UK has decided it needs a new organisation to “fight back against misconceptions about booze”, as Campaign described the new Alcohol Information Partnership (AIP) earlier this week.

Now there are many differences between The Portman Group as first conceived and the new AIP, and some of those are to do with the age we’re living through and the context of the market. But its lobby group focus and its avowed objective to rebalance the public conversation feels to me like it would have been more appropriate in 1990 than today. And The Portman Group of that vintage feels like it would have been very much at home today, rather than in 1990, as we’ve now lived through the Responsibility Deal – in which the modern-day Group is involved – and Change4Life.

It’ll be interesting to see what AIP says and does and whether it is more than just a PR exercise, as the report from Campaign – and the tags it used in its news story – suggest: PUBLIC RELATIONS – PUBLIC AFFAIRS/LOBBYING – DIAGEO. Currently, it’s clearly early days. No website. No Twitter. No Facebook. Just like 1990 all over again, then.

But whenever the organisation does enter the debate, you can rest assured its spokespeople will have to face a barrage of the very same analogies we battled with all those many years ago, though perhaps with more justification this time around. I’d wager London to a house brick that Alcohol Concern, the Institute for Alcohol Studies and the WHO are dusting them off again already.

I wish them every success.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.