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Public relations 'HER' STORIES: Heroine or heretic? Revising the influence of Robyn Hyde on national awareness and identity in mid 20th century New Zealand

Kinnear, Susan 2019. Public relations 'HER' STORIES: Heroine or heretic? Revising the influence of Robyn Hyde on national awareness and identity in mid 20th century New Zealand. Presented at: International History of Public Relations 10th Anniversary Conference, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK, 26th - 28th June 2019.

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In our current age of #MeToo, its hard to tell the story of Robin Hyde, aka Iris Wilkinson, without becoming emotional. Hyde’s story is a tale of incredible bravery and, I would argue, one of enormous contribution to the communications sphere of Britain’s last dominion during the long, decolonising moment of the 20th century. Writer, poet, journalist, commentator, educator, PR practitioner, front line war reporter, Iris’s communications scope and ability was astonishing. And yet her story ends in tragedy. This tenacious, imaginative and extraordinary woman would be found dead before her 34th birthday, a victim of gender based harassment and abuse by men from a country that prides itself of its egalitarianism and inclusivity. Iris’s country, my country, is New Zealand – a country of firsts. New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women the vote in 1893, and as Hilliard notes, the first country to set up both an official government press bench and Public Relations Department under the leadership of Public Relations veteran Leo Fanning. As the country transitioned from colony to dominion to nation during the first half of the 20th century, the task of inculcating a sense of imagined community, of explaining New Zealand’s new economic socialism, and of educating the population about the nation’s responsibilities in an increasingly threatening international sphere, fell heavily on the shoulder’s of New Zealand’s writers and communicators. Many writers stepped up to the challenge – John Mulgan, Denis Glover, Charles Brasch, and Iris Wilkinson. But while Mulgan and Glover would later be feted as New Zealand’s “Warrior Writers”, Wilkinson would be marginalised as belonging to the “Menstrual School” of writing. While Glover’s appalling commercial poem, The Plane, commemorating the launch of Air New Zealand, would be lauded as belonging to the new “masculinist” identity of mid century New Zealand, Hyde’s Public Relations work for the New Zealand Railways Board would be entirely forgotten; instead she would be castigated as a “[hobbyist] and ungifted amateur.” While Mulgan’s dispatches from worn torn Europe would become fundamental to the ‘man alone’ motif taught to New Zealand children as the centrepeice of New Zealand self imagining, Hyde’s reports from the Japanese front would be dismissed as “.… a rather embarrassing record of dangerous living and overstretched ambition” – a surprising epitaph for a woman who walked the length of the trans-Siberian railway alone and became the first war reporter to reach occupied China. This paper seeks to explore why Hyde was so vilified. My research uses the work of James Belich, Raymond Williams and Michel Foucault’s to develop a cultural materialist and postcolonial framework with which to examine New Zealand communications output during this period, arguing that the country’s trajectory of cultural development and identity fell into three distinct phases of crew, core and counterdiscourse interlocking cultures. I argue that the marginalisation of Hyde’s communications output, some of which incorporates extraordinary resonances with modern society, was not down to her being the “lassie” or “giddy gel” that Glover dismisses her as, but due to a government funded narrative lauding masculine endeavour as New Zealand struggled into existence as a self governing, independent nation. Sadly, such an explanation can be small reward for Hyde who, harried by critics of her ‘feminine’ writing and living out her final months in exiled poverty in the UK, complained she had been bullied out of New Zealand by her male peers. Her work focused on the marginalised rather than then masculine, yet she cared just as passionately about New Zealand as Fanning, Mulgan, Brasch or Glover, writing just before her suicide in 1939 from Benzedrine poisoning that… We’ve still got to find our own song. It isn’t God Save the King. It isn’t the Internationale, it isn’t the Marseillaise, it isn’t even darling Tipperary. I don’t think it’s May God Defend New Zealand, although somebody will have to soon… It’s back somewhere in the hills, waiting; or one of these men has it in his throat.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Status: Submitted
Schools: Journalism, Media and Culture
Date of Acceptance: 28 June 2019
Last Modified: 08 Oct 2019 08:59

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