David Hill: Blair's straight-talking PR man is back in business

David Hill, the former Labour press aide who replaced Alastair Campbell as communications chief at No 10, assures Ian Burrell he was anything but a spin king during his four years in charge

Monday 05 November 2007 01:00

Don't insult David Hill by calling him a "spin doctor". He is the man Tony Blair brought in to rescue Downing Street's relationship with a news media bruised and resentful after years of dealing with the abrasive style of the previous communications chief, Alastair Campbell.

Though it cannot be said that Mr Blair left the political arena as he would have wished, with the cheers of the nation ringing in his ears, Mr Hill undoubtedly helped to minimise the amount of rotten fruit hurled by the press at the departing premier.

And just as Mr Blair has had to find himself a new role, so has Mr Hill. He has returned to commercial public relations as a director of Bell Pottinger Group, representing a list of clients which includes BSkyB, Texaco and Tottenham Hotspur, and such luxury brands as Fortnum & Mason, Rolex and Polo Ralph Lauren. For the second time in his career, he is working for Lord Bell, the marketing maestro best known for his skilful presentation of Thatcherism.

Mr Hill would probably not have foreseen this during his early years as a fiery left-winger. After serving as an industrial relations officer at the Unigate Dairies in Birmingham, he went into politics as a press aide for Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party. Now 59, Mr Hill remains a steadfast Labour loyalist but clearly has great respect for big businesses which have built up their names. Indeed, he sees the defence of those reputations as a beneficent act. "Most people in business not only want their business to succeed and be profitable, but genuinely want to ensure that their customers get the best possible treatment, product and service," he says.

If a negative story about one of his clients breaks, Mr Hill enjoys highlighting the elements that have made that business a success. "I've always looked at communications from the point of view that we are trying to make good things happen and communicate that good things are happening," he adds. "It is a good and positive thing to be involved in the process of trying to communicate the good things to customers and the general public – that nine out of 10 things this company is delivering for its customers are good."

Of course, not everyone sees the work of public relations as a simple matter of spreading smiles. The industry is sorely in need of some PR itself, he says, thanks partly to the corrosive effect of the "S" word. "What goes with the word 'spin' is the phrase 'dark arts'," notes Mr Hill. "And if you say the communications and public relations world is all about spin and the dark arts, you are immediately being pejorative. But it's not about magic and creating something from nothing. You cannot communicate a good story if the facts and figures are wrong. You cannot communicate that a company is a successful organisation when it is not."

Certainly Mr Hill doesn't look like a practitioner of hocus pocus, or even a flashy London marcomms executive. His round glasses and neat moustache give him the appearance of a dependable provincial bank manager from yesteryear. On close inspection, the pattern on his tie is made up of pictures of cats.

When he was appointed as Mr Campbell's replacement in 2004, one profile-writer said of Mr Hill that he possessed a "scrupulous honesty"; another suggested he was "completely untainted by 'spin'". That is some claim for someone who has dedicated himself to political PR, playing a key role in New Labour's rise to power as its communications director from 1991 to 1997. According to Lord Hattersley, Mr Hill "finds it pathologically impossible to deceive or dissemble".

Mr Hill reckons that PRs who try to hide the truth are bound to fail. "The rule I have always abided by in every operation I have done in 20 or 30 years of working is that you never lie to the media. It's a golden rule. It's wrong in principle and you get caught out," he says. This is especially true in the digital era, he believes, when online leaks are inevitable.

"Pretty well everything becomes public. The old days when it was possible to comment on news or deliver news selectively are over. Material emerges about almost any story, every single thing that can or cannot be made public is out there."

Journalists and PRs need to develop trust for their mutual benefit, he says. "The traditional [organisations] delivering news, particularly in print, are cutting back on their staff. The BBC is cutting back as well, so we are going to have fewer journalists who are actually going to have to cope with more communication.

"There is a mutual dependency between journalists and PRs, and they have to work closer than they have before because there is this demand for news."

Senior business figures must engage with the media because the public expects them to be instantly accountable. "Everything has become far more personalised," he explains. "As far as major companies are concerned, very often everything is down to the personality of the chairman or chief executive. The reputation of the individuals in those companies is as important as that of the company itself – therefore they have to be communicators as well as effective and successful businessmen.

"Customers and the public are demanding greater accountability and they see those making the decisions of ultimately being accountable."

Mr Hill says the parallels between managing the reputations of businesses and political parties are "very strong" – in both cases, damage to an individual's reputation can have a wider impact. He is particularly proud of his record at No 10. "The relationship between Downing Street and the media was not good, because the media had written the outcome before the Hutton report was written, and was condemnatory of government and individuals within it.

"My main task was to calm down the relationship and, I hope, build on the trust that I had developed with political journalists in the 20 or 30 years that I had been working with them."

But there was only so much he could do, he admits. "There was a general media appetite for anything which might precipitate a speeding-up of the Prime Minister going, if for no other reason than he had been there a long time and the media needed something new."

When Mr Blair attacked the media in his "feral beasts" speech, his communications chief was supportive. "We all felt, as his close colleagues in Downing Street, that it was a speech that needed making."

Now he has returned to work for Tim Bell – "the ultimate professional" – with whom he first worked after New Labour's 1997 election victory. "We are both dyed-in-the-wool political animals," Mr Hill says. "Our politics are very different but our capacity to talk sensibly and objectively about politics transcends the political parties."

One of his first clients was the Royal Academy in Jordan, for whom he oversaw the launch of the 'Muslim Letter', signed by 138 Islamic leaders and calling for accord with Christians.

In commercial PR, as in politics, Mr Hill continues to fight a battle to convince the media that news does not have to be bad. "I'm not pointing my finger at any element of the media because all of them have this same view," he says. "I've always looked at the world of communications through the positive prism.

"From time to time it's fantastically difficult and a lot of the time – in politics in particular – it's just firefighting. But I still believe journalists and public relations people can work together on positive stories."

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