PR: It's not the dark side any more

Former 'FT' editor Andrew Gowers doesn't hold with the typical journalist's view of corporate PR, he tells Ian Burrell as he begins his new career
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The Independent Online

Andrew Gowers, who was until recently the editor of the Financial Times, has been in correspondence with Pink Floyd. He is just back from a trip to China on government business, which he followed with a holiday road trip from Bilbao to Barcelona.

He is a multi-layered character, dropping references to Harry Potter characters into conversation as he switches easily between assessments of the influence of the blogosphere and fluctuations in the global economy.

So when Gowers was unceremoniously uprooted from his Thameside office in November after a comparatively short four years at the head of the FT, it should have been no surprise that he began to set his mind to doing something wholly different.

Next week he will start work as head of corporate communications at the investment bank Lehman Brothers having crossed the river that separates journalism from PR. In the eyes of some journalists this is still a journey to the dark side. Not surprisingly, Gowers, 48, think the notion is outdated.

"It simply doesn't occur to me that 'How could you?' is a legitimate reaction. It has been to the good of financial journalism that companies have got better and better, more professional and more voluminous in their communication," he says. "Frankly I'm long enough in the tooth to remember when communication by financial companies in this country was absolutely amateurish. It's in everybody's interests that it should become more professional and that does not mean professional dark arts. It means professional in terms of being quite clear about what can be communicated and what can't."

Referencing Harry Potter, he declares: "I simply don't buy the idea that it's a Manichean struggle between knights in shining armour and the Voldemorts of PR."

Though he believes journalists and PRs should be able to co-operate on a "two-way street", Gowers does not for a moment suggest that his new role in comms is an extension of his career in journalism. He says he will join his new employers with "due humility" and expects to spend a lot of time "listening and learning", but believes he has a lot to offer a global financial operation. "I think I understand the way that the press works and the way that companies, the press and markets interact," he says. "Sitting at the FT in top roles for over 10 years you are observing that every day and investment banks were institutions that I had a lot of dealings with. So a business newspaper like the FT is a window on the world from one direction and an investment bank is a window on the same world from a different direction. That's at least the theory with which I'm going in there."

In swapping journalism for PR, Gowers is following a path already trailed by the likes of The Sun's David Yelland and Stuart Higgins, the News of the World's Phil Hall and the FT's Ian Hargreaves (who went to work for the British Airports Authority).

But it would be wrong to think that Gowers sees the rest of his working life in comms. Having covered the world of business as a journalist he wants to be a player himself and sees his next role as something of a means to an end.

"It's a matter for the organisation but I'm not doing this for just binary swapping journalism for communications. I want to see it as a career move from the world of journalism to the world of business, by way of communications," he says. "If you think about possible moves from journalism to business, there are very risky ways. If I was to go straight into a general management position I'm sure I wouldn't have all the necessary equipment to do that and it could well fall on its face."

Gowers' full title is "head of corporate communications, advertising, brand and marketing strategy" and his responsibilities cover Europe and Asia. He says he joined Lehman Brothers - which began as a general store founded by German immigrant Henry Lehman in Alabama in 1844 - partly because of the wider career opportunities it appeared to offer. "It's a company that gives the impression of not just hiring you for one thing. I think there are very broad horizons to working with Lehmans that could reach beyond communications - let's see where it leads."

He said he had offers to join or help to set up PR ventures but was "fascinated by the idea of seeing from within a large and successful financial institution and how it operates".

Officially Gowers resigned from the FT (over "strategic differences") rather than being pushed, but his departure clearly came at a time when he felt that his efforts in returning the newspaper to health were coming to fruition. The paper recently reported its first profit since 2001 - with a 6 per cent growth in revenues, a 9 per cent rise in sales, and a 12 per cent increase in advertising revenues in 2005. When reminded that he was still editor at this point, Gowers does not shirk from claiming his share of credit, booming, "Indeed!"

Under new editor Lionel Barber, the FT is having considerable circulation success and its sale for April was up by 8.3 per cent year on year to 462,235.

"I can see that there's great continuity there," Gowers says of the new FT regime. "I haven't seen any violent changes of direction."

Gowers's strategic differences with FT owners Pearson revolved around his perceived failing to shore up the UK circulation while concentrating efforts in launching overseas editions and developing the online version

When he left the FT he questioned whether newspapers had a future in the digital age, an attack which was interpreted by some as sour grapes from a man who had just lost his job. "So much for what passes for media commentary in Britain is written by people whose lives have been built around dead trees and they can't see the wood for them," he says, unrepentant. "The point I was trying to make, in admittedly rather colourful language, was the same point Rupert Murdoch has been making, which is that newspapers have to do far more to embrace the internet in order to be relevant in the next 20 years."

He does accept that newspapers have "a great thing in their favour", namely their established brands. "Many of the best newspapers in this country can boast that; one or two can't. Translating those brands into the online world and making them pay as well is the biggest challenge facing the industry." In Gowers' view, the press industry needs to stop obsessing over the monthly ABC circulation figures, on which he himself was often judged. He says that such figures "as anyone who's worked in the newspaper business knows, aren't entirely truthful works".

But the fascination with the ABCs has led to newspaper publishers relying on "very expensive marketing fandangos" in the form of DVDs.

"It would be a legitimate business strategy to say maybe my brand doesn't have a long-term future and I'll milk it for cash. I think that's what Richard Desmond does with the Express. I remember when I had lunch with him a couple of years ago and he said, 'The first thing I did when I came here was to close down all those fucking websites.'"

Gowers doesn't agree with such an approach, of course. He feels that even the FT's commitment to its online product is lacking. "Everybody should be doing much more. I still don't feel that any newspaper is using the infinite possibilities of the web to anything like an adequate degree in the sense of video, audio, interactivity, reader involvement."

In the autumn, Gowers will deliver to Chancellor Gordon Brown, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell and the DTI a review of intellectual property law that will be of great interest to large sections of the media. One of the key issues will be whether to extend the copyright on sound recordings beyond the current period of 50 years. Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull have been among the musicians lobbying Gowers to do so.

He is also examining the problem of unlicensed copying of CDs for non-commercial purposes. (Gowers refers to this practice by the popular term "ripping".) He says: "The fact that there's a degree of uncertainty about what people can and cannot do is one of the contributory factors to the sense that has developed, rather unfortunately, that anything goes. People say, 'Well it's a victimless crime, who am I harming?' Well you are harming the interests of future creation."

Gowers is likely to propose changes to the law. In the meantime, he has the interest of a global investment bank to represent.