This was the most successful publicity stunt I have ever been involved in by many country miles. It began simply and innocently enough. I was chair of the Queanbeyan Festival. With the festival coming up, we were looking for ways of attracting publicity.
The Queanbeyan Age had just carried a story on Rex Gilroy's search for the the Yowie. "Why don't we offer a reward for the capture of a Yowie" someone suggested? "That should grab some attention.".
We needed attention. Queanbeyan lies just across the NSW border from the ACT. In many ways we were a poor neighbour. Struggletown the ABC's Four Corners program had called us a few years' before. We had renamed ourselves Supercity - you have left the ACT, welcome to reality, some of our festival signs said - but it was a struggle getting Canberra people to be aware and actually come to Queanbeyan events.
The idea grabbed. "Let's offer a million dollar reward!" I was cautious. Nobody would believe that we could pay that amount of money. We needed a sum large enough to grab attention, but small enough that people might just believe it to be credible. In the end, we settled on $100,000.
Rob Wall, our secretary, and I drafted the press release. Since Monday was often a soft news day, we decided to release the story on Sunday night to try to capture Monday attention. With the release printed off, we drove into Canberra to distribute it to the press boxes at what is now Old Parliament House.We couldn't do this now. But then there was no rigid security, while I knew the place well because of my community, work and political involvements. All you had to do was to walk in looking as though you knew what you were doing and the attendants would ignore you.
Monday morning all hell broke loose. Rob rang me early in a bit of a panic to say that it was all over Canberra talk back radio AND that someone had rung in saying that they had captured a Yowie and wanted to know how to claim the reward! I hastily dressed and headed to work. By 10 it was clear that we had a major story with both ABC and commercial TV flying crews in from Sydney.
ABC interviewed me outside the Treasury at lunchtime. I asked them not to identify my department since this was a community matter. Silly boy. They did not name my department, I was a called Canberra public servant, but the camera pans made Treasury clear.
It was very important that I not laugh. They knew that it was a stunt, I had no idea what other material they might have, but I needed to appear reasonably serious,. At the end of the interview, the reporter said that's the end but we just want to get a few camera shots. While the camera rolled an ABC crewman jumped up and down off screen waving his arms and making faces to try to break me up. I adopted a passive face staring straight at the camera.
Back to work, I fielded more radio talk back calls. Fortunately, I had my own office. I remember the tea lady coming in when I was chatting over Toowoomba radio. She looked at me strangely. I just gave her a token and pointed at my desk while I talked. At 6.30 back at Parliament House I did my last interview for Radio Australia.
Tuesday it was all over, the story was dead. That Monday remains one of the strangest days in my experience. Still, we did get our publicity!