Categories: History of PR
5 March 2013
Gordon Macdonald (1953 – 1991), the greatest ever City of London press officer
The name Gordon Macdonald probably doesn’t resonate today in the ranks of public relations practitioners. But it should. He was arguably the most influential press officer in the City of London during the 1980s.
He was Legal & General’s (L&G) chief press officer when he died in 1991, while telling a joke in the middle of a speech, aged 37.
At well over six feet tall, thickset and broad-shouldered, Gordon was an imposing, yet gentle, character. His distinctive working class accent identified him as being from Glasgow’s Gorbals, a place Americans call the wrong side of the tracks. It, like the man himself, remained stubbornly unaffected throughout his career.
Staying true to his roots, he befriended and supported homeless couples and tramps he met on his travels. He had a habit of introducing them to his more well-heeled friends; not as objects of pity, but as valued members of his social circle. At the other end of the spectrum, he regularly danced the nights away with the Royals at Tramp nightclub in London’s Jermyn Street. Gordon also liked to party with Fleet Street’s hacks and to forge close links with newspaper owners, especially the Rothermere family. His other famous friends included performers such as Richard Harris, Spike Milligan, Mike Reid and Sir John Mills. Yet Gordon was not just a prominent socialite.
By his early thirties he had also become much more than a press officer. He was successful on the well-paid after-dinner and corporate speakers’ circuits. He was a mentor, serial risk taker and creative innovator of PR practice.
He mentored Mike Davies, now director of global communications at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Tony McGarahan, PR’s very own Red-Adair-style extinguisher of corporate fires. And he mentored me, his deputy at the time of his death (see how Davies and McGarahan credit Macdonald’s important contribution to their success here and here).
Gordon understood that information and public relations were instruments of influence. He knew how to use his knowledge and talent to become a strategic power-broker within L&G. He was not given this elevated role officially. He just seized it. He defied rank and convention by always using the executive lift and toilets. When not holding court in Balls Brothers’ wine bar – known as his other office – Gordon ate in L&G’s executive dinning rooms. It was, he said, the gossip that he picked up in the lifts, toilets and bar that gave him the edge. The Board and senior management team came to trust his opinions. Increasingly, they sought his advice before making important decisions. In return, L&G gave him a licence to operate as he saw fit, warts and all.
After his death, I read the bulky file human resources kept on him. Gordon’s love of gin, wine, food and a good time – on the company credit card – was clearly legendary. Whenever anybody saw fit to complain about his expenses or demands, there was usually an additional note attached from the CEO or Chairman saying things such as settle all bills immediately, give Gordon what he wants. When somebody proposed taking disciplinary action against him for coming back from lunch late and drunk, there were more ‘witnesses’ prepared to say on the record that he was as sober as a judge (all charges were dropped). Gordon never got into serious trouble. Not even when L&G discovered he’d sponsored the kit of the Deal Rugby Club in the firm’s name without permission.
It amuses me to think how Gordon would have coped with today’s politically correct culture. It tickles me to imagine whether even Mike Davies would dare hire anybody like Gordon to represent PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2013. Sadly, I doubt it. That’s because in today’s tick-box world, something of the soul of our profession, and many others, has been lost.
The irony, of course, as recent corporate scandals suggest, is that we seem to be less morally- and ethically-driven today than in Gordon’s more tolerant and fun, not to mention more profitable, times. He certainly knew where to draw the line. For instance, I once sat with Gordon while he chewed to bits a more senior manager who tried to convince him to tell a lie in a press release to cover-up one of L&G’s mistakes. His invaluable reputation for trustworthiness among journalists and within L&G relied on such refreshingly robust candour.
There’s no doubt in my mind that, because of Gordon’s work, L&G punched above its weight in the media, particularly on front-pages of the tabloids. He even provoked The Sun to write an editorial praising L&G (his work with Spike Milligan had something to do with that). Indeed, L&G had a uniquely glamourous and populist, as in ‘the people’s trusted insurer’, image among traditional, some would say boring, insurance firms in the 1980s.
Gordon Heald, then managing director of Gallup, told me that it was Gordon Macdonald who taught Gallup the art of using opinion opinion surveys to promote corporate financial products in the UK. To cite just one example, Macdonald’s ‘price of a wife’ surveys – or, as The Daily Mirror put it, “how much does ‘er in doors cost if she drops dead and has to be replaced by a wage labourer ” – hogged the front pages of both tabloids and broadsheets. It was also Gordon Macdonald who introduced the umberella symbol that is still synomous with L&G’s image.
His early death was lamented in most of the nation’s major media, which was a remarkable feat for a PR man in his thirties. His midweek funeral attracted hundreds of mourners from all walks of life (including the Deal Rugby Club). The readings were given by the oscar-winning actor Sir John Mills, leading PR guru Roddy Dewe, co-founder of Dewe Rogerson, and by Lord Parry, a life peer of the realm.
So here, as inspiration to a new generation of PR professionals and for the benefit of us old ones, comes Lord Parry’s valedictory address, given at St Columba’s Church of Scotland, London, June 27, 1991.
There are those who know the answers to all the questions. They know about life. They know about death. They know which is the beginning and which the ending. I am not of their number.
My father was. He taught his own children in his home and other people’s children from his Welsh nonconformist chapel’s pulpit that life and death were equal and opposite parts of the same equation: that they were conjoined, added to, multiplied by love and that the whole process of which they were parts was divided, substracted from, diminsished by, the absence of love.
Whether or not we share my father’s religious confidence, it is life and death and love that have brought us together from all over Britain to this famous church, in this great city, at noon today.
It is the life and the death of and our love for Gordon Macdonald that multiply this congregation and unite us and we are all diminished by his passing from us.
But we would be unfaithful to the life that has brought us together if we allowed our grief at his death to dominate, to preoccupy us, either here or in the days ahead, because the whole purpose of our being here is to say “Thank You”, together, for all that this ordinary, most extraordianry, young man has given to us and – both in his daily work and in his, cruelly short, little lifetime of good works – to thousands of others, most of whom do not even know his name.
The first time that I heard the name Gordon Macdonald I was the Warden of the Pembrokeshire Teachers’ In-Service Education Centre at Haverfordwest. I was also – and one or two of you might find this harder to relate to – the Parliamentary Candidate of the Labour Party in Pembroke Constituency. My secretary, young enough herself to be interested, said: “There’s a young man to see you. He’s very big and he’s very good-looking. He says he’s from the Western Telegraph. He’s got a lovely Scottish accent. Can he come in?”
He did, of course, and that’s is why – 20 years later – I am in this pulpit today. Providence – and Herbert Thomas, the Editor of the Telegraph – had chosen Gordon Parry to be Gordon Macdonald’s first assignment as a journalist. Welsh though I was and am, I had been born on St. Andrew’s Day. He was brand new out of Glasgow. My daughter was his age.
We were friends in five minutes. Monday morning coffee time became our regular rendezvous.
In a sense, I lacked a son. Gordon was, temporarily, homesick. My wife and I became his “Welsh parents”. Mrs Macdonald and Glenys shared coddling. It’s not every press or PR man who has his annual Christmas cake baked and iced by Lady Parry of Neyland in the County of Dyfed; who has it delivered by the hand of a limping Life Peer of the Realm, and who then takes it with him on a a pre-Christams celebratory tour of the City and wakes the following morning to find it lying snugly alongside him in his cot. “The sweetest thing,” he claimed – probably with peotic licence and protecting his sources – “that I’ve ever had in my bed.”
Fleet Street, as it then was, beckoned young journalists. From the local weeklies of Pembrokeshire, John Edwards had made it to his own by-line on the feature pages of the national dailies. Hugh Whittow, John’s nephew, followed Uncle. Gordon found a happy, rewarding, half-way house for his personality and his growing skills as a communicator in the press office of Legal & General Assurance. Another Welsh father-figure, Emrys Wyn Owen, welcomed and guided him there. We Celts have learned to stick together when we go among the Anglo-Saxons.
In the same way most people collect trophies – souvenirs, stamps, autographs, money – Gordon collected people. Look around you. Look at me. Remember those whose bodies – for compelling reasons – could not be here but whose hearts and minds are. We are, all, the trophies of this young man’s lifetime. Apart from Gordon, we are so assorted a congregation as to have few things in common. Our common chord is that he found us interesting. He cherished good companions. While he was fascinated with and excited by the high and the mighty and all the arrogant energy of people of position, pomp and circumstance, ultimately, it was the person inside the ‘personality’ that he loved. Nor did it matter a scrap to him whether his friends actually held power, glory or wealth. Indeed, the murder of his rugby and music playing private soldier friends of the Royal Marines’ Band at Deal probably did as much as anything, literally, to break his caring heart.
Gordon knew, by instinct, and from his early beginnings in the less than salubrious quarter of Glasgow from which he came, that – as Montaigne said – “Every man is three things. He is what he thinks he is. He is what other men think that he is. He is what he really is.” Making the necessary asexual adjustments to that, in the post-chauvinist era, we know, don’t we, that, having explored what others thought of us, and teased out of us what we thought of ourselves, he stayed with us, whatever we really are.
And, at the same time, he was looking for himself. He was – with his journalistic skills, his zeal and energy for living, to help him – researching answers to those three questions that, in our quieter moments, perplex us all: “Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going to?”
Not too long ago, Gordon extended that research into fieldwork when he went back to Scotland. He’d already seen more of the world than he’d ever expected. A guest at the great tables at home and abroad; a talker; a listener; a surrogate son; a broad shoulder to lean on; a borrowed uncle and tutor-guide to the young on the grand tour of adolescence; a lecturer; an after-dinner speaker and master of the one-liner school of wit – Gordon Macdonald, the maturing man, was infinitely more worldly-wise than when he’d left Scotland for Wales
In Glasgow, he walked the streets of his childhood.
They’d changed as much as he had. In PR terms, and as he had, they’d “gone up market”. He was disappointed. Parking his car, he had tried to find the exact spot where the Macdonalds had once lived. In the City of European Culture, one lady took more than a passing interest in his movements.
“Wha’ ar’y’u doin?” she asked. “Wha’ar’yu wantin?” “Im looking,” he answered, “for the place where I used to live.” “Ach, y’u’ll no’ find it,” she pronounced. “Everything’s changed aroun’ here.”
“No! Not everything, ma’am,” Gordon quipped, as he got into his car. “They’ve still got the nosey neighbours,” and he drove away fast.
It was in a quieter part of Scotland that he came closest to his birthright. On an off-shore island, he met a Macdonald of Macdonald. The old man became another trophy. In capturing him, Gordon recaptured something of himself.
He was, after all, a son of the essential Scotland. I almost said of the essence of Scotland. Gordon took an atavistic pleasure in the beautiful glens of his homeland. He loved Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie especially. A part of his savouring of the whole of the spirit of life, his taste for ‘Usquebaugh’ and his pursuit of those famous Old Grouse of the heather became legendary.
It was a source of delight for him that, of the four Patron Saints of Britain who, in mosaic, grace the arches of the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster, it is Saint Andrew who stands over the way to the Bar: not to the Bar of the House, nor to the Bar of Britain’s highest Court of Appeal, but to the Bar where the water and spirit of life flow, not free, but cheap enough, even for a Scotsman.
This son of Scotland, son of Mr and Mrs Macdonald, brother to Marie and Donald, and doting uncle to Ryan, was a borrowed son to me. He called my wife his ‘Welsh Mam’. He treated our daughter, Catherine, as another sister. In this congregation, Gordon has, posthumously, gathered his unique, extended family of the relationships of his lifetime and we are relative to one another because we related to him and he to us.
He brought many of us toghether. Emrys Wyn Owen – although his wife, Ruth, and I grew up simultaneously in Neyland; Roddy Dewe; Joe Palmer: Ted Tilley; Jimmy ‘The Muncher’ Waldron [he died in 2000 penniless leaving a bespoke wardrobe, a full ashtray and a bundle of memories]; the Murphys – John and Mike ; Susan Shaar; John McCarthy; Paul Seaman: the lovely, lively ageless Sir John and Lady Mills; the Harmsworth family of Rothermeres; the young Mottisons. We met when Gordon showed us off to one another.
Some of us went, together, to a Mansion House dinner of the Patten Makers’ Guild, Gordon’s Livery Company. We went – the men that is – in obligatory ‘white tie and tails’. The ladies wore emphatic designer dresses, they were bejewelled, their hair extravagantly coiffured. En route, they took a drink with me in the Peers’ Guest Room of the House of Lords. Their Lordships were impressed – some startled, even – by the splendour of their entry.
Lord Gladwyn – formerly the scholar-diplomat Sir Gladwyn Jebb – was actually impressed enough to raise one eyebrow. “What’s this, Parry?” he muttered to me at the bar. “Is it your Constituency Labour Party annual outing?” Gordon loved that.
He loved so much of life: its ironies, its inconsistencies, its casual calamities, the perpetual challenges of it all, the tears and, especially, the laughter through the tears. He triumphed in the triumphs of his friends just as he shared his own joys, his latest stories, his newest experiences of life, with them.
If you’ve ever read Matthew Arnold’s epic, narrative poem Sohrab and Rustum, you will understand why I re-read it in preparation for this moment. You’ll recall that Rustum was a mighty warrior. You’ll know that he dearly wanted a son and that his wife hid the birth of the boy, Sohrab, from him, telling him that she’d had a baby girl, for fear that the son would follow in his father’s dangerous footsteps. You’ll understand the poignancy and the relevance, the dramatic irony, of Sohrab and Rustum’s finally meeting in combat to the death and learning their relationship too late to avoid the son – with so much living still in him – dying, while the father – tiring of it all – survived. His grief led Rustum to wish to die with his dying son. But Sohrab commanded his father to take a much more difficult path: to accept the sterner discipline of life and even greater responsibilities of love by re-entering the equation rather than exiting from it. Sohrab could have been speaking for Gordon and to us this afternoon. He said:
Do thou the deeds I die too young to do
And reap a second glory in thine age.
There was, too, that ‘druid of the broken body’ and scribe of our Celtic twilight, Dylan Thomas. He was in his thirties when his death tumbled him. Who knows what poems unwritten, went with him? For years he had stretched his talent to his ‘craft’, his ‘sullen art’ writing of life and death and love.
Rabelaisian, taking all living at the full, he’s been mistaken for a pagan poet but he was not. There was in him – as there was in Gordon Macdonald – a love, almost a lust for life, as if he knew that there wasn’t much of it left to savour.
When His friends asked the 32-year-old and about to die Jesus of Nazareth what was the most important discipline of the law, He answered:
This is my commandment, that you love one another
Gordon Macdonald lived and died by that and Dylan Thomas left, for our comfort, the assuring, reassuring lines:
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
Lord Parry’s eulogy ends.
An appeal from Zurich
We ought to honour Gordon Macdonald’s memory in the 21st Century. He, at least, deserves to have named after him a prestigious annual award for creative and innovative inhouse PR practice by young practitioners. So, if there’s anybody out there with the power and the will to make this happen: please, immortalise Gordon’s legacy.
What a character. Would love to talk more to you about how we might do something…..the London College of Communication (part of the University of Arts London) run a BA and MA in PR and we are now establishing our own unique PR space in London. Feel we could create something interesting moving forward. When I first started out in PR – at BT in London – I knew of him although we never met. We need more characters not less in our profession.
There are certainly fewer Falstaffian characters around in PR these days. I sometimes wonder if there is a factory in Taiwan producing young men in grey suits with red ties and striped braces who become junior PROs. The story reminds me of my own mentor when I was a young press and pr officer for the Perkins Engines division of Massey Ferguson. In the 1960s, he recalled, he worked for British Leyland and one of his duties as junior press officer was to pay the girls leaving directors’ bedrooms at the conference hotel of the Earls Court Motor Show!
Yaakov, I agree. There’s something cold about the modern world of work. Today, everybody lives in fear of upsetting another and of being disciplined for it by somebody holding a checklist of do’s and don’ts. This has undermined motivation and creativity and camaraderie in the workplace: displaced by fearfulness, lack of trust and the straightjacket of enforced conformity. That’s not empowering. Not at all: it’s the opposite. What’s more, I fear that cynicism in the workplace is so deep-rooted today that workers engineer positive survey results by faking it so as not to make themselves a target for the chop (after all, in this climate, who trusts the anonymity promise enough to say something controversial that employers don’t want to hear?). I say this sad state of workplace life is as bad for business as it is for the human spirit. Though, paying off girls or boys of the night using corporate expenses (robbing shareholders in the process) at trade shows would not be morally or ethically acceptable behaviour even in a more tolerant world.
I first met Mac at school when he was 12 and I was 14. I was a loner, and while others my age were playing football, I was running a radio station in my attic. A wire ran to the living room where my grandmother was usually the sole listener. One day in the playground, I asked Mac if he’d like to join my radio station. “I’ll make you a star”, I said.
Pretty soon he had increased the audience to three. My father and mother loved his wit and listened to his “Maxon” show. We formed “Romac Productions” and he emulated David Frost with his “Mac on friday”, “Mac on Saturday” and “Mac on Sunday” shows. Little did either of us imagine that he would become one of Frost’s friends. We launched a second channel and Mac ran it. He held a contest for listeners to choose a theme tune and we hyped it up complete with studio audience of Mum & dad. Gran had to be the listener and voted via a telephone link! Mac was a fairly permanent fixture in my house, taking over running the station whenever I was sick.
Eventually he left school, went to journalist college and became a true star. We remained close friends until he died. I read of his death in the Daily Telegraph, on a train to Birmingham. It was perhaps the worst shock of my life.
But this week (June 6, 2013) , our little radio station celebrates its 50th anniversary – it’s now on the internet and listened to in 190 countries. And some of Mac’s shows are being repeated, including the theme tune contest from 1968. Mac would have been tickled by that.
Paul – thank you for the original post and I’m so glad that it has led to contact with LCC via Sarah, and in turn participation in the PR and Disruption event: http://www.behindthespin.com/news/pr-and-disruption-a-one-day-conference-in-london
Great story from Tony and as he’s been too modest – I found the link to his wee radio station: http://www.radiosix.com/
Agree entirely about needing more characters – I think one of the issues is that agencies and companies have increasingly focused on ‘brand’ and encouraged people to reflect more of a corporate personality rather than being themselves.
I had a conversation on this with a fellow PhD student the other day about studying PR. There is so much focus on student satisfaction (ie making it nice and easy for them) and too little on those OMG moments in education. Most of those come from brilliant characters. Instead academics become more corporate in most Universities.
I agree that practices that were previously acceptable deserve to be no longer tolerated (especially bullying/sexual exploitation – although both continue in more subtle ways). However, work needs to be fun (not the manufactured fun that too many companies feel is appropriate – wacky brainstorming rooms and all that) as we invest too much time in it not to make friends and enjoy ourselves.
This is a beautiful tribute and a wonderful reminder of Gordon. I am Gordon’s cousin and I was raised with Gordon in Saltcoats Ayrshire. Gordon and I were very close and when I moved to London in the 80s we often met up. Gordon introduced me to many of his friends and I often spent weekends at his home in Deal. I was actually in his home the day of the deal bombings. Gordon used to read me chapters of treasure island as a boy and I was often the recipient of his wicked sense of humour!
A lovely cousin, a lovely, kind, gentle man with a fantastic sense of humour.
Its great that the PR community still remember him with such fondness.
If anyone wants to talk or know more about Gordon, I would be happy to discuss.