Sophy Tobias: A taste for adrenaline

The head of PR and comms for Facebook, UK & Ireland, thrives on pressure, as she proved during the recent riots. Sara Luker reports.

Sophy Tobias: insists she 'wasn't worried' when the riots started
Sophy Tobias: insists she 'wasn't worried' when the riots started

Having your brand dragged into the centre of a national spate of looting, rioting and violence would terrify most reputation managers, but it is all in a day's work for Facebook's UK head of PR Sophy Tobias.

'Teenagers arrested for Facebook "riot" posting', 'Police step up surveillance in wake of Facebook "riot calls"', 'Facebook status: Banged up' are the sort of headlines that initiate full-scale crisis comms mode.

However, in her first interview since the August unrest, the straightforward and professional Tobias insists she 'wasn't worried' when the riots started.

'We knew what we had to do and we were very calm,' she says. 'It wasn't all hands on deck and we didn't feel like the shit was hitting the fan.

'Lots of journalists tried to blame social media for the riots. We combated that by giving them all the facts on how activity was being flagged up, the security that was in place and how Facebook was being used for a lot of good around the riots.'

Even being summoned to the Home Office with Twitter and BlackBerry to discuss their 'involvement' in the riots did not faze 31-year-old Tobias.

'At the Home Office meeting, Facebook was praised for its handling of the riots. It was testament to the PR function here and that we have built up strong relationships with the media, the Government and the police, as well as being proactive when incidents such as this occur,' she says.

Chris Norton, MD at Blue Rubicon, Facebook's UK agency, says of Tobias: 'Facebook is a brand that attracts a huge amount of coverage and yet Sophy has an amazing ability to spot issues and stories that need to be picked up. It's the sort of sixth sense that all great media professionals have.'

Working for one of the world's highest profile and most controversial brands is something the adrenaline junkie in her relishes. Tobias is like a whirlwind, but a whirlwind in complete control. When she talks, her rapid-fire conversation almost makes it sound like she is out of breath.

Her first comms job was at the Carphone Warehouse, although her route to getting a job there was somewhat unorthodox.

When Tobias dropped her new mobile phone down the toilet during Freshers' Week at Leeds University, she begged the manager at a nearby Carphone Warehouse store to replace it before her dad found out. The manager duly obliged - and gave her a job.

She worked at the store throughout university and when the group director of sales and marketing from the Carphone Warehouse took the staff at the branch out for drinks, she ended up bagging another job.

Tobias recalls: 'I was asked if I wanted to work in the head office in London and I said "only if I can work in a marketing, PR or comms role".'

Never one to sit still, she finished university on a Friday and was working at Carphone Warehouse's head office in London the following Monday.

The self-confessed 'last-minute homework junkie' thrived on the pace of Carphone Warehouse's operations.

After five years, Tobias caught the eye of eBay-owned Gumtree.com. 'It was a massive culture shock and the pace was much slower,' she says, but she soon managed to inject her own brand of energy.

'100mph can't be used to explain Sophy, she's much faster than that,' says Steve Milton, director of corporate comms at eBay Europe. 'She's very determined, yet in a personable way. She'll keep working until she gets what she wants.'

Joining Facebook after being made redundant by ITV, Tobias admits that if the riots had taken place when she first started her current role, then the brand would have been vulnerable: 'We didn't have stakeholders set up, there were gaps in the relationships with the media, law enforcement and the UK Government. We were vulnerable.'

Even though Tobias has worked hard to put the right comms structures in place, things do not always go to plan.

She explains: 'I was surprised by the reaction to facial recognition (Facebook's automatic picture tagging). We announced it in December, rolled it out in Ireland first, did gradual testing and then, when it was rolled out in the UK, the press reacted as though we did it without telling anyone.'

Tobias attributes these negative reactions to Facebook developments to a general resistance to new ideas. 'People, even those who work in technology, don't like change,' she says. 'We will always have reactions to new services because we constantly want to push boundaries.'

Facebook certainly operates in a changing landscape. With the decline of MySpace and Bebo, the rise of Twitter and attempts by Google to muscle in on the social media party, there is always a new kid on the block: 'Facebook has always had competitors and we're never worried about those we know about - only those we don't. There could be a 17-year-old about to do something that would challenge everyone.'

In her personal life, she surrounds herself with friends and likes nothing more than a house full of guests, even admitting to being a bit of a karaoke queen.

Recently married, she admits her personal life has slowed down a touch so she and her husband Adam can make time for each other.

Professionally, though, there is little chance of that happening. After all, where is the adrenaline rush in taking things easy?

 

CV

2009 Head of PR and comms, UK & Ireland, Facebook

2008 Head of press, consumer corporate comms, ITV

2005 Head of comms, Gumtree.com

2001 Comms manager, marketing department, Carphone Warehouse

 

TOBIAS' TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

It was the move from sales to PR at Carphone Warehouse, plus the opportunity to work for a groundbreaking firm - Facebook.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have been lucky enough to have had fantastic mentors in each of the jobs in which I have worked. It is very important to have someone you can look up to and learn from. At eBay, I worked with an amazing man - Michael Stephanblome. He saw I had potential and he fostered and harnessed that.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Work hard, listen and never be afraid to ask questions,but not the same questions over and over again.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Tenacious people who will not accept the norm, have confidence in themselves and a desire to learn.

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