'Even the Grim Reaper can play a role in our mission'

November 28, 2003

Death is no bar to a successful honorary degree ceremony at the University of the M25. Its spin-meister Ted Prince relates how it is done

There are very few occasions when the death of a visiting VIP is good news.

But at an image-aware institution such as the University of the M25, we look for the silver lining. And we've found that even the Grim Reaper can play his part in widening participation.

What made the timing of this death particularly poignant was that the person in question - Sheila Quigley - was going to receive an honorary degree the very next day. You probably remember her from 1970s television dramas, but in recent years she's been living quietly at her donkey sanctuary on the Isle of Man.

Her involvement with our university began with Nick McVelly, head of PR, being asked by the vice-chancellor to publicise a sure-fire money-spinning course. It was going to combine two of our biggest crowd-pullers, television training and pathology, into a joint honours degree, to be known as "Silent Witness Studies".

After a few hours with the flipcharts and giving hell to the stress-busting toys, McVelly came up with an answer.

We'd been planning honorary degrees for the usual collection of Big Brother contestants and local benefactors, but, instead, he said that it would be the perfect platform to promote the degree course.

And who better to receive the honorary degree than Sheila Quigley, the feisty northern redhead who had spent her life appearing in police dramas?

In a few short phone calls to her agent, McVelly promised the actress a trip to London and a mini-bar filled with her favourite Kilted Grouse (12-year-old malt). In return, she promised to put on the mortar board and say that the new course would get you into prime-time drama quicker than you could say "We'll need an autopsy".

But no sooner does one door open than another one slams shut on your fingers.

"Aaagh," screamed McVelly, punching his Russell Group voodoo doll and slamming down the receiver. "She passed away peacefully in the night. Don't send flowers, just a contribution to Donkeys Deserve Dignity."

"You don't think it's a good cause?" I said nervously.

"I don't give a flying monkey about the cause, we've got a degree ceremony tomorrow morning and she's dead." The veins were standing out on his neck.

"Couldn't we get someone else?" I whispered, conscious that the accounts team were popping up like meerkats.

"Such as?s" "Someone who'll appeal to our type of student."

"Our students? We'll take anyone who can sign their name on a cheque."

This was clearly a tactic to test my nerve under fire.

"We're not about taking anyone, we're about taking everyone," I said.

"Anyone. Just get anyone for tomorrow," he muttered, as if in pain.

"We want to appeal to the type of non-traditional learners, poorer postcodes, perhaps older people, we wantI" "You want someone who doesn't exist," he yelled.

Once again, I was convinced that I was in the presence of PR genius.

Someone who doesn't exist. It was exactly what we needed.

"We'll give the degree to a fictional character," I said breathlessly.

There was an eerie lull. McVelly had stopped rocking back and forth, he'd put down the doll and a ghostly smile appeared.

"Mickey Mouse," he said.

"Too American."

"Robin Hood."

"Too political."

"I've got it," he shouted, like a man rescued from prison. "Peter Pan. He's forever young - perfect for the mature students. He was looking after the lost boys, which makes him a single parent. And he never grew up but still learned to fly, so he's a champion for the physically challenged. We could tick off more boxes than Pickfords."

The next morning, a diminutive student in green tights, green jumper and a hat borrowed from the catering department made university history. Not to mention The Telegraph 's diary column. It just goes to show - all news is good news.

Email your PR challenges to ted.prince@thes.co.uk

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