Your work sounds very interesting, John. What does the job entail?
My particular interest and skill is in handling the hostile media element of crises, when critical media are taking a potshot at you. Clients tend to turn up in a panic, like rabbits in headlights. My role is usually to try to kill off the story, while protecting the career and reputation of the client and keeping the whole thing out of the media. It can be a fine balancing act. Not a dark art… just getting people not to make hasty mistakes and decisions and keep digging, which is often the tendency.
This has to be approached in a constructive way because it is not in many people’s interest to gag the media or make the story worse. Our expertise is about managing both the media themselves and the realistic expectations of the client. We also train people for media encounters, helping them with both key message preparation and delivery, as well as for appearances before Parliamentary Select Committees.
What does the Select Committees work involve?
We find that senior executives, as expected, are often terrified when they appear before a Parliamentary Select Committee, partly because they don’t know who the people are that they’re dealing with, what their pet hates might be, how the media are going to cover the encounter and what kind of answers they should be giving to the questions. We advise on all of that.
What makes this aspect of the work different to more mainstream media situations?
What is unique about a Select Committee Hearing is that they have considerable powers, mostly to name and shame. That’s one aspect. The other is that, in addition to the genuine pursuit of information, there is also a very strong element of grandstanding. That can be probably the most difficult thing for the executive witness to deal with.
Have you noticed the power dynamics shift between politics, media and business?
Not broadcast media, no; in fact, they have relinquished some of the high ground to special interest groups, who now have ways of disseminating information that was denied to us earlier, like Twitter. Digital media plays a substantial role in things now. The biggest change is the diversity of media and the eternal nature of the internet, which can make it more challenging to control the spread of a story.
You have also been a policeman and a journalist. How did your career evolve?
I was a policeman in the Metropolitan Police (which once involved rescuing lots of babies from a hospital). Then I switched horses and became a TV and radio reporter with the BBC. I was very young, in my early twenties. My police background led me into crime reporting and then investigative journalism before setting up what was then a fairly unique media relations company, specialising in hostile media. I also worked as the Media Advisor to the Speaker of the House of Commons, which was a fascinating experience, managing the daily incidents that occur in a community of 14,000 people.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
We all enjoy putting things right where you have a situation where your clients are all at sea and you can create some order and hopefully put it right. A feeling of a job well done is akin to the doctor healing the patience or the lawyer winning the case.
You spend time in both the US and the UK. What have you learned from the American model of media crisis management?
I have borrowed a few techniques from the Americans that have been very effective over here, particularly in the approach of replacing defence with attack. It has worked well when deployed with some clients – that kind of aggressive PR retaliation that hadn’t really been seen in the UK before when we first did it.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I write historical novels. I’m an amateur historian, keen linguist, determined cyclist, avid birdwatcher and passionate eco-warrior. I’ve been involved with supporting a wetlands project in America that is trying to bring a completely polluted bay back to life.
What advice do you have for anyone who finds themselves embroiled in a media crisis (apart from get in touch!)?
Find out who it is that’s asking them questions. That’s not always straight forward. Always ask before you answer!