PR Interview with Oliver Chesher, director, Admiral PR

About the agency

What’s been happening recently at Admiral PR?

In the past few months we’ve done a Royal visit in Manchester, launched the Institute for Social Renewal for Newcastle University, briefed financial media in the City of London about the evolving mortgage market, flown the BBC over the Irish Sea to look at wind farms…it’s been all action.

With regard to staff, we’ve just taken on Peter Bould to head our Newcastle office; he has a great pedigree in political and professional services communications. We’ve also welcomed back Sam Dansie, who’s fresh from covering the Tour de France for ProCycling magazine (about which I intend to ask him hours of questions), plus we’ve promoted Richard Kay to account manager in recognition of his thoughtful and intellectual approach to the national media. We also took on Amy Jackson as an intern from Northumbria University – she came along in May for a two-week placement, lit up the place with her energy and positivity, and has been with us ever since.

Next, we’re looking for a senior person to head our London office.

What were your main objectives when appointed director of Admiral in 2010?

Personally: to make money doing something I enjoy. To make a success of a business that was clearly in a perfect position to do so.

Commercially: to help grow Admiral into a network of strong offices across the UK. Even in the days when there was only one office in Newcastle, Admiral never considered itself a “regional” agency. We have always serviced national and international clients, and we’ve proven with the first year success of the Manchester office that we can turn satellite offices into thriving Admiral businesses.

What can you offer clients over a solely London-based agency?

To be honest, although having offices in different cities is beneficial for growing the business, location is rarely relevant from our clients’ point of view. We tend to compete on specialisms rather than things like price or location – we sell our expertise in niches like healthcare, education, science and tech and so on, and those clients never tend to worry about where our offices are.

I spend a lot of time in London, but it’s usually with clients or the media rather than at our office down there. We’ve also handled clients in places like Belgium, Switzerland, France and Japan in the past year, which keeps things interesting. Those international clients tend to use London as their base for UK business, so we can easily operate as a “London agency” if we need to.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges facing the PR industry today?

A lot of people say media fragmentation and the breakdown of editorial barriers, but I’m not sure I agree – I think if you’re good at PR you can turn that to your advantage.

The scariest thing I can think of is the procurement process. Clients today expect more for less, and the process of turning a prospect into a mutually profitable account is a tough one. Gone are the days of getting phone calls out of the blue saying “I’ve got a million left in my marketing budget, can you help me spend it?”

About clients

Can you list some of your most well-known, or respected clients?

Newcastle University has been with us for about four years, and environmental consultancy ADAS for over a decade. Other notable ones include Central Manchester Hospitals and more recently Red Driving School. Interestingly, we also have some clients in the financial services sector that are not well-known names but are doing big things behind the scenes handling billions in mortgage assets.

Tell us about one of your clients you recently worked with.  What was the company’s brief, your approach and the result?

I’ve really enjoyed working with APEM, which is an aquatic and aerial science company. They’re the scientists responsible for projects such as the environmental clean-up of the Manchester Ship Canal, and they use boats and aircraft to survey habitats of fish and birds. They wanted to use PR to show potential clients what they do; for example, offshore wind farm developers who require environmental impact surveys.

It’s been a really rewarding campaign, because APEM has all the elements that make fantastic stories: scientific leadership, commercial success and so many fascinating projects on the go. Also, with the world’s most powerful aircraft-mounted camera, there’s no shortage of amazing images that the media are always keen to see. We’re constantly getting national print and TV coverage for APEM, with colourful stuff like BBC Coast and Countryfile mixed in with highly technical publications like New Scientist.

You recently wrote an article for Hotel Business about how companies can blog effectively. What’s the best advice for recent start-ups?

Just do it. Dive in and start communicating – the great thing about social networking is that it’s intuitive and you can see for yourself what works and doesn’t work.

As your network grows, then things get more complicated – once you have hundreds or thousands of followers and friends online there will be an expectation for regular interaction, so you really need to commit. You need to bear in mind that digital communication isn’t just about pumping out content – your communications need to be two-way, or rather three-way: talking, listening and also empowering your network to take your messages out to their friends. Give them something they’ll want to share and they’ll spread the word.

What has been your most outlandish campaign?

It may not have been outlandish, but it was certainly exceptional: this year’s Jubilee Royal visit to Central Manchester Hospitals. It was a genuine privilege to be involved; the client brought us in to produce an event for the visit of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, including building temporary structures, VIP entertaining, media briefings and even the creation of a commemorative documentary film. That sort of thing doesn’t happen every year.

About journalists

Which areas of the press do you communicate with the most and which media outlets or journalists do you find you work with the most often?

All sorts. One great thing about being a relatively small, privately-owned agency is that the directors roll up their sleeves and get involved at all levels. I particularly enjoy working with the financial services trade press, the social affairs writers at the nationals, and I will always have tremendous respect for the BBC.

How do you build and maintain strong relationships with journalists?

Get straight to the point. Don’t try and “build rapport”, it’s contrived and they won’t have time for it. As long as you give them something compelling that they can use, they’ll quickly grow to respect you and the relationship will grow from there.

How do you think the PR/journalist dynamic will change in the future?

The way the media economy is going, journalists’ jobs are only getting harder and more under threat. It will therefore be all the more important for PR people to be good at their job: ring-rounds and pointless calls asking “did you get my press release?” aren’t going to go down well!

If you could ask a journalist one question out of the ordinary, what would it be?

I’ve never been one to hold back when it comes to asking whatever questions pop into my head, so any impertinent questions I could have asked journalists I probably already have. I did recently ask a friend at a national newspaper how many young journalists are working there unpaid, and the answer was a depressing number.

About you

How did you get into PR?

I owe that to John Drummond, an award-winning comms man and now chairman of Corporate Culture in Liverpool. He gave me a paid internship there as a naïve graduate, and I learned more in six months than I could have possibly imagined

I was extremely immature, had no idea of even the basic requirements of a professional environment, and I put my foot in my big mouth on an almost daily basis. Still, he and the team were patient and helpful, and put me on the straight and narrow track I’ve been on ever since.

What media do you seek out first thing in the morning?

I do not like mornings (thankfully I’m much sharper in the evenings), but I benefit from some extremely energetic colleagues who produce a full digest of the day’s news before I’m even fully conscious. At the breakfast table I can’t handle anything any more challenging than Twitter, to which I’m hopelessly addicted.

Name three guests you’d invite to a dinner party and why.

Greg LeMond (American former cycling champion), probably the living athlete I find most fascinating.

The comedian Stewart Lee, who makes me convulse with laughter.

Ed Miliband, because I’d love to know what his plan is.

If you could work anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

I’ll always love travelling, but I choose to live and work right here because it’s where I want to be. The UK has the best media and culture in the world, and Cheshire’s where I’ve made my home because even though I was born in Brighton, I love northerners. As a cyclist I can ride the Pennines or the Peak District straight out of my front door, and professionally I benefit from being in a heartland of media and business in Manchester.

What’s the first rule of good PR?

Clarity. I always laugh when I hear people spouting diatribes of business jargon straight out of a media studies textbook. In this business, more than any, nobody wants to hear about “incrementally delivering process-driven solutions…”

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