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The O'Brien Column: PR man converts on the road to NZSE

Friday 25th August 2000

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Enlightenment and/or conversion comes to different people in different ways. Gautama the Buddha reputedly achieved enlightenment while meditating under a tree.

Saul of Tarsus, later St Paul, found his on the road to Damascus. The event is set out in the Bible's Acts Of The Apostles, chapter IX.

The King James version (with the magnificent if somewhat dated language) tells the tale: "And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: And suddenly there shined around him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, 'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?'

"And he said, 'Who art though, Lord?' And the Lord said, 'I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.'"

Later, when Saul recovered his sight: "And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose and was baptised ... And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.

"But all that heard him were amazed and said: Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?"

The experiences of Gautama and Saul/Paul seemed to have been reflected in the attitude of Shandwick International chief executive Klaus Sorensen to the New Zealand Stock Exchange.

In a letter to The National Business Review last week he said, among other things: "The exchange has some interesting issues before it and a good story to tell which has been ignored over the years by poorly researched, cliché-ridden writers who look for sensationalism without considering all the factors in the performance of the New Zealand market over the past decade (for example, it mirrors the performance of the economy)."

Mr Sorensen seems to have found enlightenment, or been converted, on the road (Hunter St, Wellington) to the ninth floor of the ASB Bank Tower, home of the Stock Exchange.

There are some people who have recollections, albeit hazy as the years go by, of Mr Sorensen being a little less enthusiastic about the exchange than shown in his letter.

He made an interesting observation when he said: "If using a PR firm to communicate well to your audience is such a bad thing then why do all the major New Zealand corporates and organisations now use them? PR is now widely regarded as a valuable commercial tool which can add value for customers and owners."

Maybe, but PR experts, whether in-house or contracted from outside, are employed to put their organisations in the best possible light before the public.

One has only to watch TV news regularly to see frontspeople from oil companies, transport organisations, telecommunications companies - but rarely the chief executive - explain their activities or apparent shortcomings. That could be one of the reasons "all the major corporates and organisations use [PR firms]."

Having said that, it can be recognised Mr Sorensen had a point, particularly about the Stock Exchange using a PR firm to get across whatever message it has for delivery.

The exchange has changed over the years compared to the days when some senior members were toffee-nosed twits, often with limited qualifications apart from the financial ability to buy a seat. Members are now much better qualified but the exchange still seems to have a communication problem.

Some years ago a professor of linguistics told a meeting at Victoria University that people often presumed there was something wrong with their radio receiver when the broadcast was lost. He said they rarely considered there could be something faulty with the transmitter.

So it can be with organisations and their attempts at communication. All too often, a wall of spin doctors is erected between the person making the inquiry and the top brass.

One of the best examples of how to avoid the problem was seen in the case of Cable Price Downer's late chairman and chief executive Bill Steele.

Mr Sorensen will be aware Mr Steele, a man with numerous business and social involvements, answered his own telephone and either dealt with people immediately or if otherwise engaged called them back.

It would be a much more communicative corporate world if other people followed that example.

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