Profile: Ben Matthews - Young, gifted and charitable

The founder of Bright One has, at just 25 years of age, already left an indelible mark on the industry. Kate Magee reports.

Ben Matthews
Ben Matthews

At just 25 years old, Ben Matthews is possibly the youngest executive ever profiled in PRWeek. But, as his colleagues say, he has already created the lasting impression to which many a veteran PR professional would aspire.

Matthews is currently a programme manager at 33 Digital, Hotwire's digital media offshoot, where he works on clients such as Microsoft, O2 and BE Broadband. But he is best known as the founder of Bright One, the first volunteer-run comms agency for the third sector, which he runs in his spare time.

In the past two years, the agency has helped charitable organisations such as Amnesty International, TimeBank and Refugee Week access more than £180,000 of comms expertise. It has just announced a partnership with the PRCA.

Matthews is also a co-founder of Twest-ival, the Twitter fundraising movement that now operates in more than 200 cities worldwide and has raised more than $1.1m; a board member of Charity Comms, the industry body for third sector comms, and has been shortlisted for Young Professional of the Year in PRWeek's upcoming awards. Not bad for someone who has been in the industry for just three years.

Bright One works by grouping volunteers of differing PR experience, from students to people with five years' experience in the industry, into teams of four, and pairing them up with a charity to run its comms for free. The idea was born during a bout of volunteering at children's cancer charity Camp Quality UK. Matthews was on the board of trustees when the charity hired a PR agency to help raise funds and awareness. 'The charity paid of lot of money to this agency, but it didn't understand the needs of the third sector,' he says. 'The contract fell through after a few months and all the money that should have gone to the children was wasted. As I was just starting out in PR, I thought I could get some of my friends together and do it ourselves for free.'

The movement blossomed as other charities expressed interest. In September 2008, he formalised the offer and Bright One took on two trial accounts, TimeBank and Refugee Week. The agency now has six live accounts, more than 30 volunteers and last year secured ambassadors including Edelman CEO Robert Phillips, Frank PR co-founder and MD Andrew Bloch, Hotwire MD Kristin Syltevik, and Neville Hobson, head of social media Europe at WCG.

PRCA CEO Francis Ingham, who has just announced a partnership with Bright One, says: 'Ben's exactly the kind of person I like doing business with - he doesn't just talk a good game, he also gets stuff done. He has certainly proved that with Bright One, which he has moulded into a real force for good within the industry through sheer personal drive and determination.'

Despite graduating with a degree in English Literature from York University and winning The Guardian Student Media Award for the student newspaper he used to edit, Matthews was turned down by every newspaper to which he applied.

Instead he joined boutique financial PR firm Waughton. 'Because it was small, Waughton gave me a lot of attention and responsibility, so I developed quickly,' he says. He joined Hotwire six months later.

Matthews has spent most of his career in digital comms and he agrees there is a perception that young people know more about the online world than older PROs. 'Younger people have grown up with social media and are comfortable using the tools,' he says. 'But the strategy hasn't changed. Young people still need the strategy and guidance of senior comms people.'

Although Matthews clearly demonstrates an entrepreneurial streak beyond his years, he is very modest and is quick to heap praise on everyone else. 'I set up Bright One because I saw there was something wrong and I could do something about it. It was the right thing to do at the right time,' he says. 'PR is quite entrepreneurial anyway. For agencies to compete now, they need to create new ideas and new ways of working.'

As for his future, Matthews is keen to keep Bright One running, particularly as public sector cuts mean 'there is a greater need for smaller charities to receive help with their PR to communicate to the right audience but with less resource'.

But in his characteristically self-effacing manner, he adds: 'There may come a time when someone with more experience than me should take it on. You know, someone with white hair and loads of connections who could tap into billionaires.'

Perhaps Matthews should believe in himself a little more. As one senior industry PRO says: 'If you're looking for someone who will shape the future of our industry, have a chat with Ben Matthews.'

CV
2009: Programme manager, 33 Digital
2008: Founder, Bright One
2008: Programme executive, Hotwire PR
2007: Associate, Waughton

BEN MATTHEWS' TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Moving across to Hotwire PR was exciting. I was told I would only be working on digital PR and my then director said that she did not want me speaking to journalists ever again. It was a bit strange for a PRO to be told that, but I was thrown in at the deep end of running digital campaigns, which was fantastic early experience.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

My current boss, Drew Benvie, has been fantastic to work with. Not only does he have a tremendous reputation in the industry as a leader in digital PR, but he also has the reputation of being one of the nicest guys around. I try to learn as much as I can from him.

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

The proliferation of digital tools means you can now demonstrate your expertise, get noticed and connect with those you want to in more ways than before. Get blogging, get on Twitter and start building your own personal reputation.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

A thirst for knowledge, a propensity to action and not being afraid to ask questions.

To tell PRWeek about your career turning point, go to http://tiny.cc/B67GB

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