Profile: Matthew Knowles, company spokesman and head of media relations, ADS

The Farnborough Air Show is in town and the head of media relations for ADS has his work cut out, finds Alec Mattinson.

Matthew Knowles
Matthew Knowles

A casual enquiry as to what Matthew Knowles plans to do over the weekend elicits a single word response: 'Working.'

The Farnborough International Air Show, which runs from 19-25 July, was at the time of our interview still a couple of days away. But Knowles' working weekend is an illustration of how all-consuming the world's biggest aerospace event is for anyone involved.

The biennial event sees the global aviation industry descend on Hampshire, along with 1,600 journalists and 300,000 visitors. At the centre of the storm is UK trade body AeroSpace Defence Security (ADS), which organises the show via a subsidiary, and therefore its head of media and press Knowles.

Last time the world's largest temporary exhibition was in town, $88.7bn worth of business was announced. Despite tough times for aviation since, business is likely to be brisk, with the global debut of Boeing's long-awaited carbon-compost 787 Dreamliner. It is little wonder Knowles, aged 35, admits to being 'flat out'.

But the remit of ADS is far wider than aviation, as the trade body now represents aerospace, defence and security after three separate trade bodies merged in October 2009. Knowles characterises his role as 'outlining the benefits these industries bring to the UK', but this must be a tough sell to those who balk at the 'arms trade' and historical practices that saw BAE Systems plead guilty to a long-running corruption probe in February.

Knowles insists the industry has put its house in order since and the trade body has worked with regulators to draw up guidelines for ethical business operations. 'I couldn't work in an organisation I didn't passionately agree with,' he says.

'He's a master craftsman at selling in a story,' says Stephen Alambritis, head of public affairs, Federation of Small Businesses, and a man Knowles still calls 'boss', since his stint there as deputy head of public affairs in 2006. 'Matthew is also highly meticulous and his background in policy means he takes a deliberate and planned approach to get his message across effectively.'

Knowles is a Yorkshireman through and through, but he does not fit the strident, no-nonsense cliche. He is relatively quietly spoken and chooses his words carefully. He does not use his huge knowledge of the subject to bludgeon his points home, using meticulously researched figures as a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer.

But that is not to say he is not forthright in his defence of ADS members. Knowles touches on the 'green propaganda' the industry faces and when questioned on the term stands by it. 'The anti-aviation groups got organised and vocal a lot quicker than the industry, so we're playing catch-up,' he says.

'Some people will be anti-aviation regardless of what we say or do, but we've got in place everything that addresses the concerns the general public have. We just haven't been good at communicating that to anyone,' he adds.

Knowles was a relatively late arrival to the world of spin, having previously worked as a 'classic policy wonk'. 'On my first morning in the job at the Chambers of Commerce both the head of comms and head of policy resigned and the directorgeneral was fired the next week,' he says. 'So, I took on a lot of responsibly for comms quickly and that was the spark that ignited my PR career.' He explains how, along with College Hill, the restoration of the body's reputation won it a PRWeek award in 2003. 'After that, I thought "I quite like this PR stuff",' he jokes.

Knowles was, in a sense, making waves in PR long before it became his job. He led a high-profile media campaign in 2000 to get the internationally renowned Welsh, Leeds United and Juventus footballer John 'the gentle giant' Charles recognised in the Queen's honours list.

'I read a biography and just thought it was nuts that he wasn't Sir John Charles,' explains Knowles. After a national media campaign, Charles was honoured with a CBE: 'John was an unbelievable person and I feel hugely privileged to have played a small part in getting him recognised before he passed away.'

Football - and his lifelong support of Leeds United - remains one of his core passions, despite living in the South with his wife and two children in a new house.

Asked about his future career, he says he will stay in ADS' sectors for a 'long period'.

Knowles jokes about being 'accused of being a plane spotter', but for someone so immersed in the sector this would probably have been something of a compliment.

 

MATTHEW KNOWLES' TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

In 2002, I had just joined the British Chambers of Commerce in a fairly junior policy role. But after a raft of departures, I asked for more responsibility, particularly on the PR and comms side. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

- Do you have a notable mentor?

Stephen Alambritis at the Federation of Small Businesses. He is so energetic and optimistic, and I have yet to meet anyone who is as plugged into the right political and media networks as he is. I worked for him for two years, but learned as much as I would have done in ten years anywhere else.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Try a variety of tasks and sectors. You will find what is right for you through experiencing that variety and you can then make a career in an area in which you excel and enjoy.

- What qualities do you prize in a new recruit?

Energy and the willingness to challenge senior people. Innovation can only happen by exploring all the options and playing devil's advocate is a good way of doing that, as well as having ideas of your own.

 

CV

2007: Company spokesman and head of media relations, A/D/S

2006: Deputy head of public affairs, Federation of Small Businesses

2004: Democratic services manager, Thurrock Borough Council

2004: Director (regeneration and development), British Property Federation

2002: Principal policy adviser, British Chambers of Commerce

1998: Policy officer, London Borough of Waltham Forest

1997: Administration assistant, Technology Challenge

1995: Personal assistant to Lyndon (now Lord) Harrison MEP

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