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White, Eric (1915–1989)

by Bridget Griffen-Foley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Eric White, by Jack Hickson, 1954

Eric White, by Jack Hickson, 1954

State Library of New South Wales, 42872

Eric White (1915-1989), public relations consultant, was born on 6 February 1915 at Newcastle, New South Wales, third child of New South Wales-born parents Ethelbert Shawcross White, tailor, and his wife Edith Alberta, née Burns. Eric was educated at Newcastle Boys’ High School and he contributed articles and short stories to the Bulletin and other publications. He held several different jobs before possibly working as a provincial journalist. Spending some of 1938-40 in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and Cape York, he contracted malaria. On 22 July 1939 at St Andrew’s Church of England, Lismore, he married Jean Charlotte Gill (d.1961).

On 5 May 1941 White enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in September 1942. He performed administrative duties and rose to staff sergeant before being discharged from the army on 22 February 1944 as ‘being required for employment in an essential occupation’.

In the May 1944 New South Wales election White stood unsuccessfully as the candidate for Manly for the Liberal Democratic Party, a non-Labor splinter group. Present at the conference in December that formulated plans for the Liberal Party of Australia, he helped to arrange some of (Sir) Robert Menzies’ broadcasts and in 1945 became the party’s public relations officer. With the director of the federal secretariat, (Sir) Donald Cleland, White toured the States, delivering a sombre report on the party’s ‘weak and spasmodic’ organisation. In the lead-up to the 1946 election he defended a Liberal advertisement, criticised by Menzies, caricaturing Prime Minister J. B. Chifley with a smug grin and a pipe: what may seem tasteless to an intellectual, he wrote, ‘is frequently, to the bulk of the people, quite acceptable’. But some of White’s advertisements displayed an ignorance of policy; he and the party organisation were divided and both were under-resourced; and no licences were available to fulfil his ambition of a Liberal Party radio station. With blame for the 1946 Federal election defeat centring on publicity, he resigned in 1947.

White joined with Bertram Lindon (‘Don’) Whitington to form Eric White Associates Pty Ltd. Each man had distinct skills: Whitington knew nothing about public relations or lobbying; he thought White knew ‘virtually nothing about news reporting’. Their first endeavour, Inside Canberra, a privately circulated weekly review of politics, was launched in January 1948 with the help of a loan from (Sir) Frank Packer; the monthly Canberra Survey followed immediately.

White and Whitington visited Canberra fortnightly, initially operated their Sydney ‘office’ out of a Martin Place bar and the General Post Office, and did what they could to subsidise the newsletters. EWA took on public relations accounts, beginning with the Department of Trade and Customs, and running W. M. Hughes’s successful ‘Billy for Bradfield’ preselection campaign in 1949. That year White and Whitington launched Money Matters. As the newsletters’ circulations grew in the early 1950s, the men were able to afford their first cars. They were also secretly writing ‘Political Roundabout’ for the Sunday Telegraph as thanks for Packer’s generosity.

Following a quest for investors, the Northern Territory News, largely Whitington’s project, appeared in 1952; it grew rapidly and knocked off its opposition. In 1953 Whitington and White established the Mount Isa Mail, possibly because the latter did work for Mount Isa Mines. In the late 1950s the newspapers were sold to Rupert Murdoch for a handsome profit, but White retained an interest in Darwin Broadcasters Pty Ltd.

By now EWA had an office in Melbourne, and took over the Australian operations of Hill & Knowlton Inc. and other American agencies. With different priorities, the pair went their separate ways in 1957. White had an almost legendary reputation for being able to sell accounts. Six ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall, with brown hair greying at the temples, he was a bespectacled, commanding figure with a taciturn manner. Some of his consultants irreverently theorised that he hypnotised his clients, which included James Hardie Industries Ltd and Trans-Australia Airlines.

In 1959 White opened an office in London, but his grand plans to snare government contracts were thwarted, partly due to high-level reservations about him and his approach. (Sir) John McEwen complained that the Department of Trade had needed to rewrite material in London; Menzies declined a proposal to help build up EWA in the United States of America, privately noting that he had ‘no particular enthusiasm’ for the ‘not always tactful’ White.

EWA disposed of the London branch in 1964 and concentrated on Asia, opening some of the first public relations offices in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore; they serviced multinational oil companies and supported the governments’ nation-building campaigns. In 1964 EWA became the first publicly listed public relations company in Australia, with offices in every capital city as well as New Zealand. EWA was ranked as the third-largest public relations company in the world. The value of White’s shareholding had increased threefold, although he denied he was a millionaire and curtailed employees’ expenses.

On 20 February 1964 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, White married Margaret Christine Trist, a daughter of Sir Warren McDonald. White promoted the Australian Medical Association and the North-West Cape project, and assisted Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton during the 1969 election campaign. EWA experienced a slump in the second half of the 1960s following the departure of the managing director of the Melbourne office, Laurie Kerr, to form his own public relations consultancy. In 1974 Hill & Knowlton acquired EWA. White stayed on as chairman of EWA and became a director of Hill & Knowlton. Moving to Forster in 1978, he bought the lease of the Wallis Lake Oyster Farm. In 1986, ill with lung disease, he sold it, and the following year he stepped down from Hill & Knowlton.

In 1989, in a forthcoming book about the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Brian Toohey and William Pinwell planned to reveal that EWA had operated an office in Bangkok in 1968-75 as a cover for ASIS. White himself appears to have been an on-the-ground ASIS operative in Jakarta. EWA’s name was deleted in a court-ordered pre-publication vetting of Oyster (1989). But the Sydney Morning Herald, to which White—wheelchair-bound and reliant on oxygen—refused to comment, exposed the intelligence connection. Ironically, at the very time it was breaching numerous provisions of the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s code of ethics, EWA had claimed that the poor standing of the public relations industry was impeding its growth. White died on 22 November 1989 at Forster and was buried in the Anglican section of the local cemetery. His wife and their daughter and the son of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Whitington, Strive to be Fair (1977)
  • B. Toohey and W. Pinwill, Oyster (1989)
  • I. Hancock, National and Permanent? (2000)
  • B. Burton, Inside Spin (2007)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Nov 1965, p 6, 1 Aug 1981, p 37, 24 July 1989, p 1, 25 July 1989, p 6, 23 Nov 1989, p 5
  • National Times, 13 Jan 1979, p 21
  • Rydge’s, Mar 1979, p 76
  • A463, item 1959/5432, A1336, items 45581 and 45582, A6122, item 2288, B883, item NX110275 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bridget Griffen-Foley, 'White, Eric (1915–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-eric-15809/text27008, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 7 December 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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