Unflappable PR expert for clients caught up in a storm

 

Marooned in the witness box during a short break in the Flood tribunal this week, Pat Heneghan resembled a spider without a web to weave or a long-playing disc prevented from spinning.

The PR man was under cross-examination and so was not allowed talk to anyone while the stenographer was being replaced.

Shrewd, unflappable, the quintessential PR man, Heneghan has attended every sitting of the planning tribunal since it began in his capacity as consultant for the house builders Michael and Thomas Bailey. He represented Larry Goodman at the beef tribunal, being awarded £162,000 costs at the end.

His actual fees then and now are open to interpretation, however, as Heneghan has been heard to complain this week that among the multitude of sins journalists are guilty of, one of them is underestimating his earnings.

He sits between his clients a ruddy-faced, Cheshire cat-like avuncular fellow, drumming his fingers rhythmically on his thigh as though one of his beloved operas were playing in his head as some kind of antidote to the relentless legalese.

His constant attendance there and at the beef tribunal has added to an image of him as what one observer called a "Red Adair figure, called in during emergencies to damp down the flames". Some top PR consultants would be more disparaging of his tribunal-hopping, calling it "highly paid, high profile tedium".

One said: "Can you imagine a Bill O'Herlihy or a Mary Finan sitting, day after day, at a tribunal in the hope that they will change the following day's coverage by a `spin' to journalists at the end of it? Journalists who are there get the facts. They don't need a PR man telling them how to write the facts."

His main bugbear appears to be that he does not see those journalists at the tribunal as straight news reporters. They are opinion peddlers, and his job, he said in the box this week, was to make sure the views of his clients are not misrepresented.

The man who takes grave exception to the verb "spin" has no problem saying to reporters "come on now, you have got the angle totally wrong on that and it is totally unfair - it misrepresents my client's point of view". In this he says he has been "fairly effective, if I say so myself" although some journalists talk of him "bawling us out either on the phone or in person very aggressively to impress his clients".

The Galway man once spent as much time among the saints as among the alleged sinners. He studied for the priesthood in Maynooth at the same time as John Hume before leaving and joining the cigarette company P.J. Carroll in a promotional role.

That was the early 60s and he quickly rose through the ranks. The sporting community owes much to Heneghan. He is largely credited with the resurrection of the Irish Open Golf Championship, which he revived as public relations manager for P.J. Carroll and Co after a lapse of 23 years. Napoleon would have admired his capacity to be quite a lucky general at this point as often the less renowned players he signed up won major championships just before the Irish tournament. He remains a keen golfer, with a handicap of 16.

He left P.J. Carroll when, as one source put it, "he got too big for his boots" and, with Bill O'Herlihy, set up his own firm, Public Relations of Ireland, where he was joint managing director. The links between the two media experts were obvious: a love of sport, an affiliation with Fine Gael (they were both significant handlers for the party) and considerable doses of charm and affability.

There was nothing affable about their eventual split in the late 1980s though, and the former partners are said to still be on bad terms. Heneghan set up Heneghan Communications in 1990 and has become something of a protector to those companies, notably Goodman and Bord na Mona, which found themselves at one time or another in the eye of the storm. He is married with six children, one of whom, Nigel (37), is managing director of Heneghan Public Relations Consultants.

The question of whether he colluded with senior counsel Colm Allen in creating the "waste of taxpayers' money" soundbite for the lunchtime news recently proved interesting listening, when aired on Emer Woodfull's Soundbyte Radio 1 show last Saturday.

Well, did he? "Not that particular one, no," he told Woodfull.

When queried at the Flood Tribunal this week about his answer to Woodfull, he said he had replied in that way because "I didn't know I was going to discuss this tribunal at all on that programme. I went on to discuss another matter."

Emer Woodfull thinks differently. "My understanding was that Mr Heneghan was told he would be discussing political crisis management in the previous week when all the Flynn/Gilmartin business was in the news and also the Flood Tribunal," she said.

Some believe the incident illustrates the fact that Heneghan is of the old guard of public relations practitioners, albeit undisputed king of the old guard. Fellow tribunal-watcher and PR man James Morrissey - acting for JMSE - had this to say about his rival: "He is one of the outstanding practitioners of the profession and the one I most admire because of his absolute professionalism, his ability to read situations very quickly and his wonderful ability to realise that his job is a job and no more than that."

This high praise for Heneghan is echoed by many in the business, even if his lucrative, front of house position (his fees are estimated at £1,000 a day) at tribunal after tribunal, is coveted by few of them.