8th February 2016
Peter Gummer has been an influential figure in PR for many decades. He started his own firm, Shandwick, in 1974. This quickly became the largest PR company in the UK and was publically listed in 1984. He was made a peer with the title of Lord Chadlington in 1996, and is also President of the Witney Conservative constituency association.
Q: How well do you think PR has adapted to the arrival of the Internet and social media?
A: PR has adapted extremely slowly to it, and in some areas, it’s been significantly to its deficit. The reality is that the vast majority of people under the age of 30 communicate digitally, through social media. They don’t read The Times, yet politicians are obsessed by what happens in analogue media, and they do not understand how to use digital media. They feel they should be able to do it, and they tweet, and they do the stuff they think they should do, but they’re not really engaged with it. There’s one exception to that: President Obama, who understood how to make it work in elections and used it to fundraise effectively. But in general, PR has been slow in using the Internet to its full advantage. There are, increasingly, people who are doing it very well, but we’ve been slow, largely because we have grey haired oldies like me running the agencies, not young men like you, who should be running the agencies, because communication is now done in such a different form. People like me should concentrate on high level strategic work while digital natives like you should be running the agencies.
Q: What’s your opinion on whether the UK should leave the European Union?
A: I think that the UK should stay in the European Union, largely because I believe that the alternative is an even greater unknown. It’s like getting divorced: it’s better to know your wife and realise her shortcomings, and for your wife to know your shortcomings, than to set off down the road, marry somebody else, but then find that the problems are even worse. So I believe that we made a commitment; I would stay with it in this particular marriage, and I would continue to try and make it better, which I think is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing.
Q: Do you think the House of Lords is overcrowded?
A: Yes. The House of Lords is too big. It’s too big in almost every sense. For a long time, until I turned 73 myself, I took the view that the answer was to have an age limit. But I was in the House of Lords the other day, listening to Nigel Lawson, who is older than me, and I thought to myself ‘How can we lose a brain like that in reviewing legislature, based on all of his experience and all of his knowledge; how can we possibly lose that from the government process?’ So I felt that an age limit was wrong, but we do have far too many members of the House of Lords.
I’m rather drawn to Lord Steel’s point of view, which is that if you don’t come to the House of Lords then you shouldn’t stay here. Many of the peers, and I’m one, have full time external jobs, so we can’t come all the time, but I do try and come when there’s a vote and when they want me to vote. I don’t speak, because you have to commit forward, and I travel every week, and I never know if I’ll be here, but I do ask written questions, and I do try to come to the House of Lords whenever I can, so I’m active in that sense, but I’m not active in the other sense. The idea of how you would use it is very interesting, but I think it boils down to how often do you come, how often do you vote, and how often do you participate. Those are the questions that have to be asked, and if you don’t meet certain minimum requirements, I think you should be asked to leave.
Q: Who do you think will replace David Cameron as the leader of the Conservative party?
A: Well, the great thing about the Conservative Party at this moment is that we have an embarrassment of riches over the number of people who could succeed David Cameron. There are all the obvious candidates who are inside the cabinet, but there are also some very bright people coming up. This is not going to happen soon: this is going to happen perhaps in 2019 or 2020, and there’s no reason to suppose that the new leader of the party shouldn’t be somebody who came into Parliament for the first time in 2015. So there’s plenty of time, but I think that there will be a number of very good candidates for the job of being leader of the Conservative Party and therefore Prime Minister, because it’s in that order, and I think that all of them would make fine Prime Ministers.
Q: How much of a problem do you think addiction is in the UK?
A: I think it is singly the biggest problem that we face. By addiction, I include addiction to sugar, I include addiction to tobacco, addiction to drugs, and an addiction from which I suffer, which is addiction to work. You talked few minutes ago about social media. There is also addiction to electronic media, to all sorts tablets, everything like that. We’ve all ended up in a world in which extreme behaviour is regarded as the norm, and as a result, I believe that the quality of our cultural life and our family life has been appallingly, almost irreversibly, damaged.
Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: Other than the Bible and Shakespeare? The most interesting book about modern life, in my view, is written by Tom Wolfe, so I would ask you to read Bonfire of the Vanities, because it has within it all the consequences of being too materialistic – which is a huge danger – and the resulting devaluing of human relationships. So I would encourage you to read Bonfire of the Vanities, and if you had the appetite for it, I would encourage you then to read another book by Wolfe called A Man in Full.
Q: What life lessons have you learnt of the course of your distinguished career?
A: I think there are three things, one of which is more important than anything else. I think that you can never underestimate the importance of good manners and courtesy. Second, you must force into your life, and my children would now roar with laughter, some kind of work-life balance. You have to have another world, a hinterland, and that is terribly important. I remember a very senior politician saying to me once, when I asked if he got upset about the terrible things that were written about him: ‘That’s not me, that’s my public persona. I have a carapace which surrounds me, so those things don’t hurt me. My home, my life, my private life, my personal life is what I protect.’ That was very interesting. The third big lesson is the most important one: never give up. The number of times I have seen people who would have succeeded if only they had tried for a little bit longer. The most successful people keep on going and they never ever give up. You don’t have to be clever in life, you have to be determined to keep on going. Never look back, never say if only I did that, learn your lessons, of course learn your lessons, but otherwise, keep on going.
Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: I think never give up, which is pretty important. In other words, I couldn’t do everything, but what I could do I was going to do as well as possible. Everybody of my generation can remember having a teacher at school who was, for some reason or another, extremely influential in your life. You look back and say ‘If I hadn’t met that teacher, if I hadn’t spent time with that person.’ I had an English teacher, who wasn’t a particularly clever man, but I felt degree of empathy with him; he taught me how to enjoy books, and that was the most important thing of my teenage years.
Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: Yes, try even harder. I mean, there were things that I wish I had persevered at, for example, music. I could sing quite well, I’ve naturally got a good voice and that’s a gift, but I never went through the exercise of honing it. I regret not doing this. My son is ten years older than you, he’s 26, and we went to the rugby this weekend in Ireland, and we had 36 hours together. We were talking about this, and I suddenly said to him: ‘I look back and I think “Why didn’t I ever pick up a golf club? Why didn’t I ever do this? Why didn’t I ever do that?” ’ I wish I had tried to do more things to see if I liked them.
Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met, and why?
A: The most interesting person, who recently died, was an author called Phyllis James. She wrote thrillers under the name of P. D. James, and I was captivated by her. I’ve always wanted to be able to write really well and the thing I found most difficult was dialogue. And this was what she said to me on the subject: ‘I almost have a mental picture on the wall above my head of the characters in the book. So I have one person here, and he’s got black hair, and dresses like this, and so on. And over here, I have another person, and he looks like this. And when I come to write the words, I look up at the picture of the person, and I imagine how they would say something. These people take on a life of their own, and that’s why, when I finish writing a book, I’m exhausted, and it takes a while for something to trigger my imagination again.’ And she said the spark that brings someone to life could be very tiny. It could be the way the tie is knotted in somebody’s necktie, or how they pick up their napkin after they’ve had their food, anything. ‘Suddenly, I see something and I see a character developing, and that’s why I can do the dialogue so well.’ That was a little bit of a very long conversation I had with her about writing, and she was very generous in talking to me about it. Her books, particularly the development of a character called Inspector Dalgliesh, are very good. If you haven’t read a P. D. James thriller, they are all remarkable and you should do so, and she was an extraordinary lady. She died aged 94 last year.