Carbon paper, filing cabinets, couriers and telex

In just over 111 years mankind has progressed from putting the first powered aircraft into flight to landing a machine on a comet. This astounding rate of evolution in the aviation and aerospace industry comforts me slightly when I look at how PR has changed in the 26 short years since my first job.

Because it means I’m not necessarily an old fart. Just that ours is yet another area of endeavour which has seen huge change over a very short time.

In a tweet this week one May Wildman (@maywildman) asked what the world of PR was like before email. The more I thought about it, the more I realised how things have changed in the weird and whacky world of PR.

When tweeting was what birds did. When linking in was something your grandmother did with her knitting needles. And when facebook was something that happened when you fell asleep while reading.

While the principles of PR have stayed broadly the same, pretty much all of the mechanics have changed.

It was a great time to be learning the ropes in PR. Lessons that are still benefitting me and skills that remain relevant and are still earning me money today.

Just 26 Christmases ago email wasn’t a thing. News releases were distributed by snail mail or, for the more local or urgent releases, by messenger or by courier. Or by that ultimate in sophisticated communication – telex! Because even fax machines were still an emerging technology.

A cross between a typewriter, a telegram, a fax and a dot-matrix printer, the telex kept PR people in touch with all the newsrooms that mattered.

At Spectrum Public Relations in Harare, Zimbabwe, Evey Fenn (with her multi-coloured fingernails and her hair coloured to match whichever fluorescent shade her poodle had been dyed that week) would type my news release into the telex machine.

Email? What’s email?

She’d then input the telex address of the outlet it needed to go to – one at a time – and off it would go. At the other end a machine would chatter and clatter out my offering onto a huge roll of telex paper and this would be torn off and presented to the news editor for his or her delight and delectation.

Speaking of which, those were the days when, in PR consultancy, you absolutely would not put a news release on your client’s letterhead. The news release came from you, and you only. That was an assurance of the quality of the writing and of the validity of the information. In those days your personal brand, and that of the consultancy you worked for, mattered hugely and counted for a lot.

And heaven forbid that you should ever be cheeky enough to suggest a headline for your news release. That was purely the sub-editor’s prerogative. As a result we became adept at writing opening pars that were everything they should be.

PCs (IBMs!) would arrive at Spectrum very soon after I joined. But for the first year or so we just had golf-ball typewriters. And secretaries like the awesome Evey, the fiery Nicky and the ever-patient Irenie who would take our hand-written news releases and features – complete with crossings-out and subbing marks – and turn them into type-written masterpieces suitable for sending out to clients for approval or to journalists for review.

Subbing marks? Now there’s a thing! We grad-trainees or fledgling junior account executives were taught the ropes by real-life journos who knew what hot lead in the printing presses actually smelled like! Changes to any text were indicated to the secretaries or to us juniors by these marks placed in the left-hand column of the page. Well I remember the redoubtable Stan Higgins MZIPR MIPR, former sub-editor of the Manica Post and at that point a director of Spectrum, teaching us over beer and pizza in the boardroom after working hours what these marks meant and how to apply them.

Each news release, feature, letter, contact report or whatever would be typed up in duplicate or triplicate, depending on its stage in the drafting process. Evey would take two or three pieces of paper and place them on top of each other with blue carbon paper between them to record faithfully each key-stroke onto the page below. Top copy for the publication. Second copy for the client. And third (slightly indecipherable copy) for the relevant file in the filing cabinet. You know those Word icons for files and folders? Yep – that’s what they looked like!

Client-facing team at Spectrum PR in Harare, Zimbabwe – circa 1990. Jill Day (back row, left), Nicky Micheletti (back row, next to Jill, facing away from camera), John Wilkins (middle row, left), George Foot (middle row, second from left), Irene Tasselli (middle row, third from left), myself (posing), Stan Higgins (middle row, right), Every Fenn (front row, right).

House magazines – in-house publications – were the be-all and end-all in internal communication. We learned how to lay out text and images and how to cut and paste these (literally: cut out, using a craft knife, and paste, using glue!) onto page templates. And how to turn these into camera-ready (literally: ready for a camera to take a photo of!) copy. This taught us layout, design and sub-editing skills and we soon became adept at paring down a story to just the bare facts – itself a valuable lesson in learning how to write news stories.

At 9am, 11am, 2pm and 4pm our messengers – the always-smiling Alfie and the other guy with the acne-scarred face who I never quite trusted and whose name I can’t remember now – would head off into town to hand-deliver those news releases destined for nearby newsrooms. And the releases that were to be sent by ‘post’ had to be in Herbie’s mailing tray by 3.45pm so as to be delivered to the post office during the 4pm messenger delivery.

Ah, Herbie Kunaka! Our genial, avuncular receptionist who would chortle and whose large frame would literally shake with mirth every time I put the wooden frogs on his desk in a mating position. The frogs were ‘while you were out / on the phone’ message holders – their spring-loaded mouths holding scraps of paper onto which Herbie would scribble messages like: “Mr Cluff called in to see you while you were in your CZI meeting” or “Mr Stringfellow called at 11.57am. Please call him back urgently about the confidential ZimSun listing” for everyone who happened to enter reception to see.

It was truly a very different time, May. But, my goodness, it was a great time to be learning the ropes in PR! Lessons that are still benefitting me and skills that remain relevant and are still earning me money today.

I will remember forever and with huge gratitude the lessons I learned at the feet of Stan Higgins, Jill Day, George Foot, John Wilkins, Evey Fenn and so many others. Giants and industry stalwarts – every single one of them.


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6 Responses to Carbon paper, filing cabinets, couriers and telex

  1. Pauline Rose says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this Peter! It was a very similar scene in NZ, and the other thing I remember is the black and white photos. We typed up the captions and sellotaped them on the back of the photo, before sealing them into envelopes with their press releases.

  2. Peter says:

    Thanks, Pauline. Yes! That too!

  3. Rowan says:

    Good stuff, Peter! Hopefully it will take less than 26 years for the damn press release to entirely vanish! Now that would be progress worth celebrating.

  4. Stan Higgins says:

    This is just great, Peter, and I am grateful for the recognition of being of assistance on your route through life. Sadly, I have to tell you my life in PR pre-dates telex machines, and we used to send typed drafts by hand for approval, then send approved releases out on roneo-ed format copies. This is now all akin to saying we used to eat brontosaurus steaks between volcanic eruptions!

  5. Stephen Doran says:

    I remember starting out as an agency journalist we had to use Mercury Newslink to send all our stories out (desipite this being firmly in the age of email). Involved remember all these obscure numerical codes for each newspaper and pasting into a command line interface. And for this they charged 50p a delivery.

    Those were the days.

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