PR queens’ last long lunch

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Alexa Forbes still refers to it as “our business” and has all the infectious patter you’d expect from Queenstown’s queen of PR. 

But within two weeks, she will have sold up and left Southern PR – the business she established with partner Fiona Woodham and nurtured for 16 years. 

Forbes is ostensibly leaving to pursue her passion for sustainable practice, studying a full-time one-year post-graduate diploma online with Otago Polytechnic. 

‘Ostensibly’ because if there’s another reason, it would be difficult to find out what it is. 

Interviewing both Forbes and Woodham together over lunch, there’s an argument to say I’m distinctly outgunned. 

This is their territory – the business lunch – and delivering a positive news agenda is their well-honed expertise. They could be throwing NZSki brochures at each other in the office, or flat broke, and I’d be none the wiser. 

It is unlikely though – Southern PR has become a highly successful local company in the last ten years. 

“It is not an economic decision, on any level,” Forbes says. 

“It’s simply a move on. The business itself is really strong and going well. 

“It was quite a hard decision to make and of course you always wonder whether you’ve made the right one. 

“I’ve actually been following sustainable practice for a very long time, involved for maybe 10 to 15 years, most recently in the Shaping Our Future process. 

“I’m very passionate about it. This community has a huge amount to learn and do; otherwise it’s going to suffer some pain. I don’t think people understand that.” 

Forbes and Woodham launched the business – originally Woodham and Forbes Communications – on a $500 budget from their homes. 

Former Fleet Street journalist Woodham says: “We worked together at a radio station and set up a news bureau. 

“We were on the receiving end of such bad pieces of PR, such abysmal media releases. I can remember one particular one that I literally wanted to go through with a red pen and send it back to them with corrections. 

“We thought there are people out there getting paid to do this and we could do it 10 times better.” 

They drew up a target list of clients, including Winter Festival, NZSki and Millbrook Resort, and contacted them. 

Within weeks, they were working with them. About eight years ago, they moved the business into CBD premises and with the help of former National Party president Sue Wood they created a brand, a limited company and took on full-time staff. 

A lot has changed in PR since the start-up – Forbes, for example, had Queenstown’s first email address – but both are proud to say they are still working with many of their original clients. 

Woodham says: “The last couple of years haven’t been good for a lot of businesses around Queenstown and New Zealand – everyone is on tight budgets. 

“A lot of PR firms have lost staff and big clients but we have retained our business really well, adapted where we’ve needed to. We’re busier now than we have been for a long time.” 

Now the business must adapt again. 

Woodham says: “It’s going to be quite strange. We’ve worked with each other for so long. 

“In that sense it’s quite daunting going out on my own as the sole owner but that’s not to say I don’t still have people in the office I can bounce stuff off.” 

Forbes, who came to Queenstown in 1986 with a band, has no plans to leave. 

“I don’t think I’m going to find it hard at all to let go,” Forbes says. 

“I’ll just throw myself straight into the next thing, which is what I’ve done all my life. 

“I was a musician for many years and when I gave up smoking I walked out of that because I didn’t want to be in a smoky bar any more. Then, I was a journalist for some time and then we decided to set up PR. Now it’s time for something new.”