Quentin Browell

Quentin has 30 years' experience in advising a range of clients on how to achieve legislative, political and business goals by targeting relevant audiences, decision-makers and influencers through effective communications and advocacy. He has held senior roles in PR and public affairs agencies, as well as in-house roles with trade associations and major global companies. Clients include US State Department, Government of UAE, BBC, Diageo, Booker PLC, Blue Circle PLC, Apple, London Stock Exchange. He has a particular focus on the aviation sector with positions in global airlines trade body IATA, global air traffic control trade body CANSO and SITA, the global company that provides communications and IT solutions to the air transport industry.

How do corporate communications differ from marketing communications?

The main difference is the target audience.

Marketing communications are targeted at those people and organisations you want to buy your products and services.  Communications is about promoting the product and persuading people to buy. Channels include advertising, sales materials, social media, promotions and so on.

The audiences for corporate communications cover various stakeholders to which you want to disseminate information to protect and improve your company’s reputation, create and develop relationships, and foster a favourable political and regulatory climate in which to do business. These stakeholders might include investors, trade bodies, regulators, political institutions, analysts, media and the general public. Activities include PR, media relations, lobbying, producing collateral such as reports and company literature, social media, crisis communications, and investor and analyst relations.

What does your work with a client usually involve?

It involves sitting alongside them to understand the business and its priorities; and to gain their trust. My first task is usually to brief the client about communications; how it works; and what it can achieve. In particular, we look at the organisation’s business objectives and corporate goals and work out how communications might be able to help.

I then work with the client to develop a communications plan. Typically this involves agreeing objectives, identifying the audiences for communications, drafting the messages and argumentation with supporting evidence / proof points, and deciding the communications platforms and methods of getting the messages across to the target audiences.

The fun really starts when we implement the plan. General Von Moltke observed:  “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. The same is true of communications plans, which need to be constantly adjusted to circumstances, events and the actions of others.

How did you get into this field of work? 

From an early age I was interested in current affairs and politics as well as writing and debating. I was particularly fascinated by how decisions are made; what influences decision-makers; and why certain arguments are won or lost. I read politics at university, where I became involved in student politics and became chairman of the student union. After university I wanted to become involved in politics so joined a lobbying company in Westminster.

What excites you about your role?

I love communicating and helping others to communicate. I enjoy giving speeches and drafting speeches for others to deliver.

I relish the cut and thrust of advocacy. Rather like the famous Monty Python sketch, I like a good argument. The satisfaction is in putting together a strong case and winning the argument through excellent advocacy.

I am particularly excited about tricky communications challenges: helping organisations with poor reputations; working on controversial issues; shifting long-held perceptions and views.

What have your highlights been so far?

The highlights tend to involve solving or mitigating difficult communication or political problems. I have enjoyed helping clients with major reputational issues or difficult legislative ambitions.

For example, I represented the airline sector in devising and implementing communications surrounding the aviation industry’s response to concerns over its environmental impacts. This has led to a global approach to mitigating emissions from aviation rather than piecemeal national or regional approaches.

Another highlight was developing a communications strategy for the Iraqi National Congress. The challenge was getting the disparate opposition groups to Saddam Hussein in exile to agree on anything and then present a united front. It taught me a lot about negotiation and the labyrinthine nature of international politics, not to mention the deviousness of certain governments!

Are there any challenges facing your sector?

I see three main challenges: the huge growth of communications channels and platforms; the increasing diversity and fragmentation of the target audiences, which are often difficult to define; and a shift from solid argument and proven facts towards emotional messages and so called fake news.  The successful communicator needs to be able to operate effectively across all these platforms; tailor messages for increasingly fragmented audiences; and incorporate emotional elements that will resonate with those audiences.

Do you find companies try to do their comms themselves – and get stuck? What are the common issues?

Everyone thinks they can ‘do’ communications and indeed many CEOs are excellent communicators. However, good communications is time consuming and requires expertise so my strong advice to CEOs is to focus on their core business and use specialist experts to undertake their communications activities.

In terms of issues and getting stuck, a common mistake is when companies communicate what they want to say rather than what their audiences want and need to hear. Good communications is about crafting the right messages for the audience so it responds or acts in the desired way.

Often I see companies spending time on communications that do not achieve anything. A communication is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Therefore the only measure of a communication’s success is if it actually achieves something; if it results in a change of opinion or a sale. For example, some companies often see issuing a press release as a solution to a problem. Frequently it goes in journalists’ waste bins and never results in media coverage. Even if it does result in coverage, how does that coverage further the company’s communications and business goals?  My task is to ensure communications are targeted, effective and help further the company’s business objectives.

Should a busy entrepreneur prioritise their communications? How can they make time for it with everything else on their plate?

Communications lies at the heart of any business and is absolutely critical for any company large or small. You need good communications to tell your story, attract investors, sell your product, enhance and maintain your reputation. A busy entrepreneur needs to make time for and invest in communications if it is to be successful. The busy entrepreneur should therefore either hire an in-house communications professional or an external advisor, which will save them time.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

During my military service, we were taught never to make assumptions but to clarify exactly what was required. My heart sinks when I hear someone say: “Oh, sorry I assumed XYZ…” This is advice I have also passed on to my children!

No task is beneath you. This is also ingrained into me from my Army days. Lead from the front and don’t ask your subordinates to do anything you are not prepared to do yourself. This means rolling up your sleeves and stuffing delegate bags at conferences, helping arrange stages and banners for press conferences, or whatever needs to be done.

I always remember one of my first bosses in PR telling me to focus on what keeps the client up at night and address those concerns as the first priority. It doesn’t matter what else you do for a client if those concerns aren’t addressed.

How do you see your work changing over the next ten years?

My work has changed massively over the past thirty years with the advent of the Internet, social media, smart phones and so on. We will see further technological change over the next ten years that will affect how companies and individuals communicate. However, the fundamentals of communications have remained much the same – the art of telling a compelling story, understanding your audiences and how best to reach them.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

Spending time with my wife, daughter aged 17 and son aged 14. We do all the normal family stuff and have robust political debates round the kitchen table.  Having lived in Switzerland for 15 years, we still spend a lot of time in the French Alps where we see friends, walk in the summer and ski in the winter.

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