Columns

50 years on... and still counting

Lance Neita

Sunday, June 09, 2019

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I realised the other day that this year marks some 50 years since I have been in the public relations (PR) business. This may come as a surprise to many — it is to me — as I have tried to follow the mandate laid down by my brother, the late Hartley Neita, and other pioneer professionals that a good PR man stays behind the camera, rather than in front.

Hartley was regarded as one of the best communicators and journalists in the business. He was highly respected for his professionalism, as he worked as top press officer and communications expert for heads of governments from both parties, starting with Norman Manley, Sir Alexander Bustamante, Sir Donald Sangster, Hugh Shearer, Michael Manley, Edward Seaga and P J Patterson.

At one stage of his career he had principled differences with Seaga, but this did not stop both men from enjoying a mutual respect for each other, and Hartley cherished a handwritten note from Seaga in 1965 congratulating and thanking him for his “excellent performance of duties in managing protocol and communication responsibilities for the state funeral of Sir Donald”.

In later years Seaga was one of the first to congratulate him on his series of articles in The Gleaner, 'Interesting Historical Facts', published a few years ago.

Hartley would, no doubt, frown at any attempt to eulogise him in a column written by a family member. He would describe it as a form of nepotism and cautioned against using it in the profession. Nevertheless, the 50-year reminder prompted me to look back at those early days when I started my career as a public relations officer with the venerable Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB).

I had arrived, almost literally with grip in hand, coming in from the country to deposit myself on the veranda of the red brick building at 78-80 Harbour Street. A quick orientation and then I found myself working in a tiny 'Projects' office with none other than the legendary Fred Wilmot, and a young, creative, and artistic advertising professional Derek Roberts.

Fred had for years been my hero when he hosted Lunchtime Date on Radio Jamaica and flooded the airways with his relaxed style and distinctive Canadian/Jamaican accent which remained with him all his life. His love for Latin American music got him into trouble when he introduced band leader Edmundo Ross as Edmundo the Ross; in those days such nuances were unacceptable and I heard that he was suspended by the station in response to public outcry.

You see how pious we were in those days? In fact, Edwin Allen, as minister of education in the 1950s, almost had a heart seizure when a student used the word “damn” in his hearing. I think he tried to ban the word.

My desk was right beside Fred's, and for the next few weeks this country boy just sat in awe and stared at the procession of famous people who came in and out of Fred's office. They came from the entertainment world, the media fraternity; well-known writers, actors; members of the travel trade, government, hotel industry; even people whose names I had heard of and never dreamt I would meet – Evon Blake, Abe Issa, Frank Pringle, Robert Lightbourne, Percy Broderick, Ken Chaplin, Barry Watson, John Hearne, Amy Webster DeLisser, Hector Bernard, among many others.

Conversations were above my head, and I gaped and sat and listened, until one day Fred, a bit exasperated at my country shyness, said to me: “Young man, in public relations, if you don't have anything to do, don't do it in the office.” Another lesson learnt.

The five-year stint at JTB was a university education for me in public relations. My responsibilities entailed hosting and working with leading travel writers, photographers, magazine publishers, newspaper editors, fashion models, advertising agencies, film crews and directors, and, yes, tricksters in the trade from all over the world. They flocked to Jamaica in the 1960s, and the Public Relations Department of the Jamaica Tourist Board was the hub for their movements as they combed Jamaica.

It was also valuable and early exposure to the Jamaican press of the time. Interestingly, a press list of the day would have included Carey Robinson, Ken Chaplin, Martin Rennalls, and Franklyn St Juste of the Jamaica Information Service Film Unit located at 98 Hanover Street; Hector Bernard and Charley Balfour at Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation; Patrick Ritchie-Haughton, J C Proute, and Hugh Wong at RJR; O C Fairclough at the Public Opinion; Senator Joseph McPherson at the Jamaica Labour Party's Voice newspaper.

At The Gleaner, a formidable team, T E Sealy, editor; Clifton Neita; Ulric Simmonds; Calvin Bowen; Percy Miller (farms); Barbara Gloudon; Lowell Sutherland; Myrthe Swire; Junior Dowie; Freddie Smith; and Jack Anderson at The Star.

On the fledgling public relations side there were Frank McManus at the Jamaica Industrial Development Corporation (now the Urban Development Corporation), Alcan's Keith Swaby, and the indefatigable Kathleen Johnson at Desnoes & Geddes.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and memory fails me in some areas, but for a young rookie to be associating with these veteran media personalities of the time, it was a great learning experience.

The recent destruction of Fred and Cynthia Wilmot's family house in St Thomas, and the loss of their historical writings and paintings, is an emotional matter for me as I shared Saturday afternoons at the house on many occasions.

Only a few years ago I stopped by to look for Cynthia, who I had not seen for maybe 30 years. She immediately called Fred (in Canada) and we shared memories of the JTB days and his own admiration of how I grew as a young man, family friend, and a budding public relations person.

So, 50 years on, all due to people like Fred and those who made up the press fraternity who embraced and challenged me in a tough and uncompromising manner, and sometimes got me into all sorts of trouble late nights downtown on Harbour and Port Royal streets in places Miss Abie's boy should never have been.

These were hard-back professionals, and I learned journalistic ethics and standards, not from the book, but from having my 'best' work rejected, understanding their sceptical approach to press release puffs, their respect and demand for accuracy and truth, their ability to get below the surface and to unearth the facts. Thanks to them, I still enjoy doing what I did back then.

Remembering Edward Seaga

I join with the thousands of Jamaicans who are paying tribute to former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. There is dismay in some quarters that his casket is closed, but we must respect the wishes of the family, and I am sure this decision was taken in the best interests of the family and the public. It is certainly not unusual nowadays to have a closed casket, and if, for example, cremation has been done, then there is no casket at all.

There is an interesting parallel story to this issue which was told to us by Seaga himself in his autobiography. In 1964 Seaga was made aware that there was a move afoot, spearheaded by the two former wives of Marcus Garvey, to have his remains removed from London, where it had been placed in the catacombs of St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Kensal Green Cemetery, to Liberia, or to Nigeria. He accepted a suggestion from a private citizen that the remains should be sent to Jamaica instead. Prime Minister Sir Alexander Bustamante was in immediate agreement with the proposal, and so the Government of Jamaica persuaded the family to have the body shipped to Jamaica for reinternment.

On arrival at Palisadoes Airport, on November 10, 1964, the casket was met by a large crowd and transported by launch across the harbour to Victoria Pier. On the day before the interment, November 14, Seaga, as the minister in charge, arranged for public viewing inside the Roman Catholic Cathedral on North Street.

But, as he said, mischief was afoot. Rumours circulated that Garvey's body was not in the casket, and that, instead, it was a log. This did not go down well with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) affiliates and there was much public resentment fuelled by the fact that the family had asked that the wooden panel which covered a glass window over Garvey's face should not be removed. As seems to be the case today, the family was fearful of the conditions of his features, considering that Garvey had been embalmed and buried 24 years before.

And, even as the crowd filed past the casket, the controversy was building, and a state of possible embarrassment loomed. But Seaga had a plan. He stood at the head of the greeting line, and when he saw UNIA officials led by Z Munroe Scarlett and other notables who had personally known Garvey, like Stennett Kerr Coombs, he put his emergency plan into action.

“I took a screwdriver out of my back pocket and quietly removed the two screws, leaving the wooden plate in place. I was taking a great chance. Suppose Garvey's face was unrecognisable or, worse yet, horribly disfigured. The ceremony would be ruined.

“But, on the other hand, the rumour that a log was in the coffin could live on indefinitely. This, too, would ruin the whole purpose of the repatriation. I had to take the chance.”

As fate would have it, the plate was lifted for the few seconds that Scarlett and Coombs were passing by, and there was Garvey's face, substantially intact, well embalmed, and readily recognised. Scarlett looked at Seaga and said, “It's alright, it's him.” That was enough.

Seaga later learnt that the Garvey family was upset, but he was a good friend of Julius, the eldest son, and they managed to make up through this connection.

Is history repeating itself? When the body was interred, some 30,000 people thronged the park to witness the enshrinement of Jamaica's first national hero. And only three people outside of the family and the funeral caretakers saw the body up close.


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