Colin Byrne & David Yelland: "Yes, we do have the same interests"
Take one former editor of 'The Sun', David Yelland, and pair him up with a former Labour press chief, Colin Byrne. Then let them loose on the PR industry. Raymond Snoddy meets them
Monday 04 July 2005
Both come from the North, have very similar beliefs about politics and the future of PR. Both are very New Labour. You could call them very New PR.
"Yes, we do have the same interests," admits Byrne. "We even have the same marriage. He has a six-year-old and is divorced and I have a five-year-old kid and I'm divorced," says the man who learned his trade at the feet of a master, Peter Mandelson, now a European commissioner.
As they tell it, since they began working together a year ago, it'\s been a professional match made in heaven. Together they look after the reputation of companies such as Coca-Cola in the UK and Yelland has been brought in by Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco to advise on how to prevent the supermarket giant from becoming a victim of its own success.
"I have not regretted, and I hope David hasn't, a single moment of our partnership and it is totally a partnership," says Byrne. The eldest of seven children whose father was an Irish republican trade unionist who worked in the Manchester docks and became a working-class Thatcherite. Yelland, the rookie PR man whose father was a Barclays Bank manager, says he is enjoying what he is doing "three or four times" more than he thought he would.
"When I look at my diary at the beginning of the week, with very few exceptions, I am looking forward to every single meeting. When I was editor of The Sun and looked at my diary on a Monday morning I would be tempted to turn the car around. It stressed me beyond belief the responsibility of that job and getting it right," says Yelland.
Though the two executives seem totally at ease with each other, it is remarkable that they ever got together at all.
Byrne was looking for someone a bit different to boost both the British credentials and the intellectual credentials of the American-owned company whose UK origins lie in a British PR group founded by John Gummer, Lord Chadlington.
"Intellectual is not a word you often hear associated with PR which is seen as fluff and spin," says Byrne. "I wanted to get a partner who brought that, just as I brought the political Mandelson-Campbell stuff to the private sector."
When Byrne was hired 10 years ago by Tom McNally - now Lord McNally - the Liberal peer advised him never to hire a journalist. In fact, he has hired quite a number including Michael Prescott, the former political editor of The Sunday Times. This time the matchmaker was Margaret MacDonagh, former general secretary of the Labour Party, who like Yelland had been on the advanced management programme at the Harvard Business School.
Byrne thought he knew quite enough about former Sun editors. He once had Kelvin MacKenzie as a PR client and had found him to be every bit as rumbustious, loud and brash as the legend he had read about.
"I thought, fuck me, another Sun editor," says Byrne, a friend of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, whose former wife Judy Hall was Kinnock's press secretary. He still has the scars from The Sun's "Nightmare on Kinnock Street" in the 1992 general election campaign.
"What The Sun did was to try to destroy a decent man, Neil Kinnock, in front not just of the British public but his family. We lived with that personally," says Byrne. But as he and Yelland lunched at Orso in London's Covent Garden, the PR executive realised just how counter-cultural a Sun editor Yelland had been. A Sun editor with an economics degree for a start.
"There is a difference between old Sun and new Sun, which is the same as the difference between Old Labour and New Labour," Byrne explains.
They hit it off and the job was exactly the opportunity Yelland had been looking for. The date was 14 May 2004, and there was a particular skip in David Yelland's step. It was his 41st birthday; the prospect of a new career had opened up and to cap it all the news had come through that his great adversary, Piers Morgan, had just been fired as editor of the Daily Mirror.
But never mind the grand title - what does David Yelland actually do and what has it been like to cross over to what many journalists like to call "the dark side"?
"It is basically a non-executive chairman role. I have no executive responsibilities," says Yelland. "Colin runs the business and the practice heads run their practices. My role is to act as an ambassador, to help internally and to carry on doing what I do best - to get out there and carry on meeting people and bringing people together."
Byrne believes Yelland is one of the best-connected people in London without ever bragging about it. "Who he doesn't know isn't worth knowing and I'm not talking on the celebrity frothy circuit. I'm talking about business, about politics about academia," says Byrne.
Certainly when there was a party to mark his stepping down as Sun editor, Tony and Cherie were there, as were Gordon and Sarah, not to mention William Hague and IDS. And when the guest list of those invited to Chequers, the Prime Minister's country house, was published recently, up popped the name David Yelland yet again.
Yelland believes most journalists don't make it in PR - which he regards as the more interesting side rather than the dark side - because they are so used to getting information and putting it on the front page and telling the world. As a journalist you have only a little part of the total information, perhaps as little as 3 or 5 per cent, he believes. As a PR you are told everything but then have a duty of confidentiality.
Apart from Coke and Tesco, Yelland is also an adviser to an Australian company in some difficulty - Multiplex, the builders of the new Wembley Stadium. "Essentially I offer strategic advice to the people who run those companies. What we do is get into the business in a very nitty-gritty way. It isn't just about the media. It's about lots of things from internal and international communications to contacts with regulators and politicians and - more importantly than anyone else - the customer," he says.
But what advice does he actually give to Sir Terry and Tesco and are they really worried about being too successful?
"I'm really not going to talk about Tesco," says Yelland, who has taken only a year to become a near word-perfect PR.
Byrne sees the Tesco move, and the press reaction to it, as another sign that PR is being taken more seriously in the UK.
"I can't remember the last time even a major company like Tesco hiring somebody to advise them on public relations and corporate strategy, as opposed to hiring a financial adviser, make it into the company pages of the FT and being commented on favourably as a sign of true professionalism," the Weber Shandwick chief executive notes with pleasure.
Yelland is prepared to venture at least one opinion on why he might have been hired by Tesco. "What people like Terry Leahy understand is that the Sun gives you a pretty much total understanding of the way the country really does work, not how it appears to work in terms of the physical process," says Yelland, who, incidentally, is not sure to this day why he was appointed editor of the top-selling tabloid.
He admits to having to pinch himself sometimes to remind him that it ever happened at all. There were high points, such as the front page asking of Tony;
Blair's European predilections: "Is this the most dangerous man in Britain?" And there were equally dramatic low points such as having to issue grovelling public apologies for publishing old partially topless pictures of Sophie Rhys-Jones, the Countess of Wessex, just before her wedding to Prince Edward.
After his five years in charge of The Sun the circulation stood at 3.76 million, some 30,000 up during his tenure, a modest number but a considerable achievement considering the intense competition in the tabloid market.
"I am extremely proud of my five years at The Sun. Very proud of it indeed, and the more I look back on it the prouder I get. I think the paper was a great force for good, actually. We liberalised some areas such as homophobia which has actually stuck," he says.
Editors usually have the sort of tenure associated with Premiership football managers. Some such as Dominic Lawson of The Sunday Telegraph are simply fired. Others like Yelland are eased so gently towards the exit and another job within the organisation that they scarcely knew themselves why it happened. "If I was fired I was very grateful, thank you very much, because after five years I was looking to move on and had made it pretty clear. I wasn't asked to leave the company," Yelland emphasises. He was sent on the $62,000 nine-week management course at Harvard taken in the past by the likes of former BBC DIrector General Greg Dyke and Dawn Airey of BSkyB.
Yelland loved being bombarded by the corporate cases studies that Harvard specialises in and even has 280 of the bound studies in his Weber Shandwick office. He was clearly changed by the whole experience.
"It very much changed my perception of the world and what I wanted to do but also my perception of myself," he says.
During the course Yelland began to realise just how important all forms of communications are to business. In a very real sense, he believes business is communicating. As he talks you can see the mental journey taking shape that took David Yelland over to the "dark side".
"It had never crossed my mind that I would ever leave News Corp. I saw myself as a lifer," he admits.
He was offered the director of communications job at News in Australia and a similar position with Fox in the US. Then there was the divorce and Yelland neither wanted to leave the UK nor felt that as a former Sun editor it would be a good idea to work for News Corp in the UK.
Instead, the company, which tends to cosset its former editors financially, at least for a respectable period, offered him a highly lucrative weekly column in The Times which played to his latest obsession - business and communication.
Companies such as Tesco, Coca-Cola and even Microsoft, another Weber Shandwick client, tended to be praised, apart perhaps for the need to raise their game in communicating their message.
At The Times the series of articles called "The Message" were privately described as the longest job application in history. At the same time sub-editors amused themselves by happily counting the number of times the phrase "when I was editor of The Sun" appeared in his columns.
It worked. There were discussions about Yelland becoming director of communications for ITV plc although they came to nothing, and there was a number of other possibilities. And then came the invitation to have lunch at Orso.
Yelland regards The Sun as one of the great brands in the world but it is clear that he is far more comfortable in his new world. Indeed, critics such as Piers Morgan have suggested that he was never a natural tabloid editor - or words to that effect. "I would take that as a compliment. I would not want to spend too much time in a room full of natural tabloid editors and I do mean that. I think that there is a lot more to life than that," he replies.
With the exception of Morgan, Yelland believes he managed to edit The Sun for five years without making any enemies - a remarkable achievement in itself. He doesn't understand fully the level of personal animosity directed at him by Morgan.
"All I know is that we were friends before I went to New York (to work at the Post) and as soon as I got off the plane we were enemies," Yelland recalls.
"If you are a tabloid editor there is only one job you want and that is the editorship of The Sun. Really, I think it was difficult for Piers to accept that he never got that job because if he hadn't gone to the Daily Mirror it would have been his for the taking," he adds.
Looking around the PR universe Byrne believes that rivals such as Brunswick or Finsbury tend to focus narrowly on share price or mergers and acquisition work. He believes David Yelland brings the ability not just to see the trees but the whole wood, the big picture. Byrne is the first to acknowledge the irony that the PR industry can't even manage to achieve decent PR for itself. That he believes is partly because PR is still associated in many minds with practitioners such as Max Clifford and Matthew Freud and frothy celebrity.
"Most PR people are like birds who fluff up their feathers and name drop", says Byrne. "I'm not having a go at Matthew, but PR does get a bad reputation and it is better than that. It is better than that," says Byrne with passion.
Apart from its private sector clients Weber Shandwick, part of the financially troubled Interpublic group of companies, is also working with the Department for Education and Skills. It is trying to persuade businesses to partner with schools in deprived areas.
"That's about changing society. It's about getting business to recognise that if we have 20 per cent of kids at 11 not being able to read and add up, that is a business issue as well as a social issue. Tell me that's fluffy PR. I don't think so," says Colin Byrne.
He believes that spin involves trying to "polish a turd". What he and his new partner are involved in is helping people to tell the truth in a way that is interesting. Yes, but after a 20-year career in newspapers, does David Yelland miss journalism?
"No" comes the instant and emphatic answer from Yelland, who believes that PR as an industry is now right up there with the lawyers and the barristers in terms of the value they add to a company.
But what if Rupert Murdoch called offering a management job in News Corp?
"I will not be going back to newspapers. I am enjoying what I am now doing more," insists Yelland, a member of a very exclusive club - the four surviving people who either are editing, or have edited, The Sun.
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