WHITE, ERIC (1915–89)
Born in Newcastle, New South Wales, Eric White contributed to the Bulletin and may have worked as a provincial journalist before enlisting in the AIF in 1942. Discharged in 1944, he was present at the conference that formulated plans to establish the Liberal Party of Australia. He was director of public relations for the fledgling party until 1947, when blame for the party’s election loss centred on publicity.
White then joined with Don Whitington, a journalist on (Sir) Frank Packer’s Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, to form Eric White Associates (EWA). Based in Sydney, the company took on PR accounts, as well as publishing newsletters (Inside Canberra, Canberra Survey and Money Matters) and provincial newspapers (the Northern Territory News and the Mt Isa Mail). Tall, slim and imperious, White had an almost legendary reputation for being able to sell accounts to major companies and government departments. He maintained that there was ‘only one place for PR—at the top. The responsibility for public relations must rest with management’. With Whitington nervous about the implications of the growing PR business for his status as a member of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, the pair went their separate ways.
By the early 1960s, White had built the biggest PR firm in the world outside the United States. There were offices in every Australian state, New Zealand, London and increasingly across Asia. White refused to allow any EWA staff to join the Public Relations Institute of Australia until 1962, when it instituted a binding professional Code of Practice. In 1964, EWA became the first publicly listed PR company in Australia; White sold out to the American agency Hill & Knowlton in 1974.
He retired to take up oyster farming in coastal New South Wales, but remained on the board of Hill & Knowlton until 1987. Two years later, Oyster, a book by Brian Toohey and William Pinwell, revealed that an Australian PR firm was a cover for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in Asia. White, by that stage terminally ill, would neither confirm nor deny the story. But his son, Hugh White, later recalled how his father had told him he did ‘secret work for the government to protect Australia’.
REFs: SMH, 25 July and 23 November 1989; P. Golding, Just a Chattel of the Sale (2004).