This past week, I have been accosted by noise. Not single decibel blasts that deafen the senses and have you clasping cupped palms over perforated eardrums. No. More the unrelenting din that comes with too much said too loudly without purpose. I put the aural assault down to three things: conferences, elections and children.
Like any other industry, the public relations sector always puts aside a couple of days each year to pick warts, navel gaze and generally clear the sinuses in the name of clarity, meaning and motivation. It’s self-flagellation for the communicating masses. The Australian public relations Institute is no different, although this year they managed to populate their speakers list with a nice combination of the inspirational, marginally misinformed and incredibly bland.
For my money, top of the pile was Paul Holmes, CEO of the eponymous Holmes Group. Paul is the public relations industry’s voice of reason. A journalist from the north of England, he retains that Lancastrian no-skin-off-my-nose approach to business and people, saying it like it is and never one to be accused of suffering fools gladly. Like any journalist in a position of relative power, Paul has his detractors. But the fact is he’s guilty of nothing more elicit than smacking you in the face with common sense, ramming reality down your gullet and hotwiring a vision for what’s to come.
On the stage, Paul has a formidable presence. His shaved head glistening under stage lights, he never stops moving, pacing and marauding across his platform, weaving his way around issues with the ease and confidence of a prizefighter. Public relations is about relations with your public, he says. That means we’re in the business of behavioural change, not communications; CEOs are scared of no-one with the exception of their mother; your brand is something people say about you when you’re out of the room; and spin may help you get something once and that makes it an utterly useless tool for effective business management.
For 45 minutes, we were cajoled, entertained and tested by a man with no script and a head full of ideas. Everything else at that conference paled into insignificance. It had quickly become background noise. I met Paul for breakfast later in the week and it was clear he’d captured the essence and nuances of the challenges the Australian industry faced in his 72 hours in the country. Moreover, he articulated them with laser like precision: clear, crisp observations that left rhetoric for dead and relied on sparring points of specific reference. I’ve rarely had the opportunity to enjoy such energy and intensity with my scrambled eggs.
It takes a healthy pinch of charisma, emotion and intellect to get away with being so bullish on the stage. I suspect an over active thyroid gland helps too. Mr Holmes clearly has a bucket load of the first three and he puts them to extremely good use. Something that few can genuinely claim. Which leads me to my next noise-related point. Politics.
After months of speculation, the Australian public was popped out of its holding pattern and told to come to the polls on 25 November. Incumbent Prime Minister, John Howard, is going for an unprecedented 5th term, but trails Labour leader Kevin Rudd by a whopping 15-point margin. But at the ripe old age of 68, Howard is no slouch. Having made the election announcement on a late Sunday afternoon (something to spoil the family dinner, I’m sure), he leapt out of his corner first thing Monday announcing the most radical tax reform the country had seen for decades. Having beaten Howard around the haunches for so many previous months, Rudd looked punch drunk by the news. It was a near knock out blow.
But a day is a long time in politics and Labour was soon at the podium announcing it’s own reformed tax package commitments that looked suspiciously identical to Howard’s – save for the free laptop chucked in for every Australian schoolchild by 2010. Howard countered with further reforms, meaning by the end of Day Two of the six week election campaign, we were all looking forward to 5% tax cuts plus a bumper Christmas season for the computer games industry.
The election has quickly turned into an auction of the minds, with one bumper gift pack after the other raining down on all of us. At this rate government coffers will be exhausted by election night, as the public dreams of what it will do with its cash, IT gadgets, improved health packages, goats, chickens and cattle. It should be a fun night for all.
The down side to all of this is that we currently have no chance of knowing what’s going in the real world. Election noise has drowned out everything. On any average day, the national and state newspapers commit their first dozen pages to the over-inflated promises and stories of how single parents will soon be cashed up to the eyeballs. Already we’re at the point where the media battle lines have been drawn and editors are deeply embroiled in a good old-fashioned bitchfest about the candidates on the other side.
Such is the level of political and media one-upmanship, there’s every reason to expect the public to become jaded and lost in the din. Both sides are now guilty of generating such a plethora of irrelevant and meaningless information that it all ends up sounding like some loud, confused discordant sound. Howard’s initial tax pitch was smart in that grabbed everyone’s attention and, generally speaking, they got it. Rudd is now doing the only thing he can do which is to shut down the impact by turning up the volume elsewhere. Howard will undoubtedly follow. It might be good politics, but it always presents the danger that the public could well just reach for their collective earmuffs and crave for some peace and quiet for a while. And when that happens, we could all wake up with our election hangovers wondering how the hell the Green party got into office.
Unlike silence, which comes prepacked and in one colour only, noise is pretty versatile. It wears a thousand cloaks and presents a million options. Put simply, if silence is a white linen suit, noise is Joseph’s Multi-Colour Dream Coat. And don’t I know it.
A new piece of furniture arrived in the Rumsby abode this week. It’s called a BoomBang Box and has been carefully crafted from the finest gloss plastic in some stupendous primary colours. It also makes some extraordinary sounds if you jump up and down on it, which is, of course, exactly the idea. Joshua, 6 months, loves it. I now need to wear dark glasses around the house.
If this wasn’t enough, Will, two and a half, is now the proud owner of an electric piano. It’s the size of the kitchen sink and comes in a slightly less offensive pale blue. That said it makes up in noise what is lacks in eye-piercing aesthetics. I had never realised that a piano could, if wired correctly, sound like a dog. Or cat. Or goat. My home has become farmyard, basking in the glow of a 20 million watt rainbow.
Which is all the more reason I am looking forward to a moment of relative calm later this week. For one evening, gone will be the bland conference speeches, unending political rhetoric and multi-coloured children’s toys. In their place will be the queen of the skies, the A380, courtesy of Singapore Airlines. Our team in Australia has been working furiously to put the finishing touches to the launch of the first commercial flight of this extraordinary aircraft. It arrives in Sydney late Thursday afternoon and, chances are, few will hear it coming. It’s eerily quiet on the outside and unashamedly relaxed and refined on the inside. I have to say; I never thought I’d be relishing the prospect of an aircraft launch in the name of a bit of decent peace and quiet. But that’s what happens at election time, I guess. You’ll do anything to escape the din in the hope if finding something really rather interesting.