End of the road for drive to success

July 9, 2004

Ted Prince faces the ultimate PR test as his career splutters to a halt on the hard shoulder of the University of the M25.

This wasn't going to be easy. I was leaving the University of the M25. And I faced the ultimate challenge for a public relations man - to write the press release giving the upside to my own downsizing. My boss, the King of Spin, Nick McVelly, broke the news to me. For a man who makes his living out of presentation, it was a masterclass in directness.

"You're out of a job next month," he said. "What are you talking about?" I thought this was only his school-of-hard-knocks banter.

"Didn't you get the text? I sent it this morning? They're putting the department out to tender."

"What are you going to do?" It was difficult to take this in so suddenly.

"I'm setting up my own consultancy. I'm going 50:50 with the bursar. He's out as well. They're contracting out finance and payroll," McVelly said.

"What am I going to do?" I said, suddenly seeing the mighty highway of the University of the M25 turning into a weed-strewn dustbowl.

"You're going to write the press release."

It was my toughest assignment. They wanted a press notice and a short note for the inhouse mag, Hiya! , saying that the University of the M25 was entering a European joint venture with Garnier to accredit a new course in Hair Care Sciences. And tagged somewhere at the end would be a line saying that this would be funded by cost efficiencies in the PR and finance departments.

"Just for reference, in case anyone asks, who are we outsourcing to?" I asked McVelly, as I wearily wrote myself out of this academic powerhouse.

"McVelly Trim Solutions," he said, without a flicker of self-consciousness.

"You and the bursar?"

"It's a win-win situation," he said. And with that he walked away.

I hunched over the keyboard, a rather desolate figure, stranded somewhere on the fourth floor of an anonymous administration block at the unfashionable end of an industrial estate south of Luton.

When I'd been at university as a student it had been a question of whether I wanted to turn into Samuel Beckett or The Clash. Now my world was a few square yards of partitioned space in an open-plan office.

I tried to begin the press release, looking up for inspiration at the Driving For Success poster we'd produced, showing three graduates - one white, one black, one with a guide dog - in the back of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And it reminded me of a song from the film. "From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of successes."

Suddenly I realised something quite profound. I wasn't cut out for this life of lying and letting the bad guys always win. I wanted to escape this dull, soul-crushing routine. I hated this daily destruction of everything that was decent and understated.

So I deleted the press release I'd been writing and began an email to the vice-chancellor.

"Dear Slimeball, Yes, you, you big fat hypocritical snob. You've never done a single thing for this university that wasn't in your own interest, you greedy, ego-crazed slug. You should be ashamed of yourself. Yours very sincerely, Ted."

Whistling "from the ashes of disaster", I hit the send button. This was how freedom tasted. I was a real live human being again.

And then I had a message straight back from the v-c.

"Re: slimeball. What are you talking about?"

I wasn't in any mood to mess around, so I emailed straight back. "Sacking me, you big corrupt piece of human flypaper."

There was a poster in the window showing the University of the M25 as a giant educational service station, and with impressive accuracy, I put a heavy-duty stapler straight through the glass.

"Who said you were sacked?" wrote back the vice-chancellor.

"McVelly. He's awarded himself the PR contract," I typed, enjoying the crowd gathering around the smashed window.

"He's leaving to set up his own firm. We were going to ask you to take over as head of department. We want a new in-house team to work with the contractors."

This wasn't what I'd expected.

"There might have been a slight misunderstanding about the job," I emailed back. I could feel a cool breeze through the missing glass.

"No, I don't think so. Goodbye, Ted, yours, Slimeball."

It was time to say goodbye to the University of the M25.

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