Crikey’s PR expert Frank Flack has incredible knowledge of the industry as this tribute to the recently departed Laurie Kerr demonstrates.

Laurie Kerr was the founder of IPR, once the biggest flackery in Australia, and along with his former boss, Eric White, the creator of the Australian flack consulting industry.

He was also a legendary behind the scenes political and business fixer who made millions from PR.

Yet when his death was announced it was his much earlier life as a Carlton and Victorian footballer which got his death into the weekend newspaper sports pages and television news.

The man who had manipulated the Australian media so successfully for so long had even managed to do it in dying.

Laurie Kerr originally worked with Eric White at Eric White and Associates, the first major consultancy in Australia. Eric White was previously press secretary to Sir Robert Menzies. He was helped in building his business by close links with Australian intelligence which placed operatives in EWA offices around South East Asia. This, by the way, was not unique to flacks. Around the same time the PA to legendary Age editor, Graham Perkin, was also working for ASIS.

Laurie left EWA but was bound by a non-compete clause. A few close associates set up another agency, Lincoln, which post no-compete became the basis of the Kerr empire.

IPR grew because of what some people called “the black box” effect. Whatever the problem you had IPR would fix it. Nobody quite knew how, hence the black box, but fixed it was normally for huge fees. In recent years that relentless self-promoter, Ian Kortlang, frequently boasted both of the size of his fees and his fixing ability. Compared to Laurie and IPR both the fees and the fix-it ability were pygmy-like.

Unlike flacks like Kortlang, Laurie also understood that his power and influence was enhanced by secrecy as he avoided publicity about what he did and who he worked for. However, apparently in recent years he did talk to an academic who is working on a history of Australian flacks so we may eventually get a better idea of the range of clients and activities.

The IPR business was eventually sold to the global Shandwick business for a huge sum although the Kerr family kept the premises which they owned from where the companies operated.

From time to time information about clients did leak out. It is known for instance that IPR worked for the Mars group of companies in Australia and organised, among other things, for the Carlton football club to wear light blue jumpers to mark the launch of a new lolly. In recent years, by which time IPR was in decline, Murray Mottram of the Sunday Age pulled together a lengthy piece on the firm and its activities.

Following the sale and the progressive departure of family members the business faded away until even the once-powerful Melbourne office was closed by its new multinational owners.

But for more than a quarter of the century IPR was flackery in Australia with fingers in pies from politics to confectionery. Managing crises, making issues disappear, manipulating the media and making millions of dollars all with virtually no scrutiny and almost no public profile.

IPR along with Eric Whites was the platform on which the myriad of firms and hundreds of flacks spread out into Australian business and politics.

Many of the flacks, particularly in the early days, worked for both. Most of the major companies today were founded by, or are run by, former EWA and IPR people.

From EWA backgrounds came the John Camerons, Peter Lazars and Noel Turnbulls who set up Rowlands, PPR and Turnbull Porter Novelli. From IPR came Russell Hill and Ken Davis who grew Holt as well as people like Mike Jarvis who came to head Ford PR worldwide.

The never-ending set of wheels within wheels within the industry are epitomised by Hill & Knowlton MD, Greg Ray, who worked for IPR, left to set up his own firm and then finally sold to H&K the successor firm to EWA.

But while many of today’s flacks owe their starts to EWA and IPR it seems improbable that anyone or any firm will ever again have the same influence and dominance.

The industry is bigger and more sophisticated or, if you prefer it’s baleful effect is even more pervasive.

Yet the amount of scrutiny it gets is not much greater than when Laurie Kerr and Eric White created it.

That seems more a condemnation of the media that either of them.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW