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Nick Henderson is 89 and still runs his own PR firm

The PR world has a lot to thank Nick Henderson for, particularly the healthcare sector. Before Henderson started his agency Henderson Group One in a converted stable over 50 years ago, the idea of specialising in pharmaceutical PR had not been thought of. As you might expect, there have been a lot of changes since Henderson started working in PR five decades ago. Here he describes how the industry has evolved; whether it has changed for the better; and offers some sage advice for those just starting out in PR.

From the age of nine, Henderson always wanted to be a vet and succeeded in achieving his dream. However, he found the unpredictable hours and late nights spent in the cold and wet delivering farm animals were far from ideal. Looking for more regular hours, Henderson first moved into veterinary management until he was approached by the then president of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) to take on PR for the association. Henderson says: “I said to him you don’t want a vet, you would be better off asking a pharmacologist or a doctor. However, he pointed out that I knew everything there was to know about medicines. He asked me what the chemical name of aspirin was, and when I replied ‘acetylsalicylic acid‘, I got the job.”

At that time, the press was hostile to the pharma industry, with bad feeling over such issues as pricing, and Henderson spent much of his time smoothing over difficult media relations. After five years, it seemed to be a good time to go out on his own: “I realised I could do this for myself. I negotiated working a four-day week and set up my business, Henderson Group One, in Belgravia in an office converted from a stable. I was often asked why it was called Group One, and I said that when my son joined me it would be Group Two, but he never did …” As it happens, His son Tarquin Henderson, has followed in his father’s footsteps and worked for his father’s agency in the early 1980s before establishing a successful PR career at companies ranging from Kingsway PR to Hill and Knowlton. Like his father, he has now chosen to be his own boss and has started up the agency ReEnergise.  

Discussing how the industry has changed in the last 50 years, Nick Henderson says: “Public relations has become dominant as a marketing tool. It has taken over the communications role that marketing people used to do to establish a reputation and brand for your company. Healthcare PR, which I pioneered, has become a widespread professional competence of many PR agencies. I was the first person to specialise in this area.”

For those who don‘t have the benefit of five decades of experience, Henderson offers this advice: “Make sure you work to your strengths and always be humble enough to learn. Never be cocky. Cocky PR people can put off a client and can also put off those who the client wants to influence.”

One of the first projects Henderson‘s agency took on was the setting up of an oral contraceptive information centre in the 1960s. “There was a need for this because UK uptake of oral contraceptives was much lower than in the States. The press was always telling women about problems of the Pill, for example, it claimed that it would mess with their cycles. My job was to take journalists to one side and point out that they were talking rubbish. The worst man was a chap on the Daily Mirror, but in the end we became firm friends.”

Henderson was so successful at improving the Pill’s image that he was asked if he could do the same with aspirin, which was facing a lot of competition from paracetamol and receiving bad press over such claims as it was harmful to the stomach. Henderson says: “I have been running the Aspirin Foundation ever since, promoting how good it is for cardiovascular health as well as how it can help to prevent cancer.”

Over his career, Henderson has often been recognised for his contribution to the healthcare sector, but he says the greatest highlight was receiving an award from the then Institute of Public Relations (IPR) for his work with aspirin when it was 100 years old in 1998. This July he is also about to become an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons for his services to the profession. Henderson concludes modestly: “I’m quite pleased about that.”

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