Alex Woolfall: Life outside the crisis bubble

After many years working in crisis comms, the head of Porter Novelli's EMEA corporate practice has a broader PR remit. Kate Magee reports.

Alex Woolfall: 'I really enjoy crisis comms, but I was keen to get involved in the whole gamut of PR'
Alex Woolfall: 'I really enjoy crisis comms, but I was keen to get involved in the whole gamut of PR'

For someone who has spent the past two decades being a 'head of bad news', Alex Woolfall is surprisingly jovial.

His warmth and likeability are immediately apparent, and as he talks - buoyed by two cans of Diet Coke - he exudes a laid-back charm.

Perhaps his good mood is the result of his new role at Porter Novelli. He joined two months ago with a remit to build up the corporate practice across EMEA.

The move was motivated by a desire to broaden his horizons. 'I really enjoy crisis comms, but I have been doing it for a long time and was keen to get involved in the whole gamut of PR,' he says.

After almost 20 years of working in crisis comms, from his first foray at ABTA to heading crisis departments at Hill & Knowlton, Weber Shandwick and Bell Pottinger, 45-year-old Woolfall certainly has a few tales to tell.

One that springs readily to his mind was when he worked on what initially appeared to be a simple recall of a product contaminated with 'carbonated matter'. The 'matter' was later discovered to be heroin, dropped into the product by a factory worker who panicked during an inspection.

He also worked for McLaren during 2007 when the F1 team was given the biggest fine in motorsport history ($100m) for possessing secret technical data about rival Ferrari's cars.

Perhaps his highest-profile crisis was handling PR for travel firm Mark Warner when Madeleine McCann went missing from its Ocean Club complex in Praia da Luz,in Portugal. Woolfall had only rejoined Bell Pottinger four days before he flew to Portugal and ended up staying there for almost a month.

'I had only taken four pairs of daily contact lenses with me because I had no idea I would be there for so long,' he says.

The stay gave him an inside view into how the media work. 'Being at the heart of the story, you know if what is written is true or not. Many of the media stories were speculative and made up,' he says. 'It made me realise that journalists are under enormous pressure to deliver a story, and one that is different to their competitors. It can drive things in a very unhealthy way.'

Being a good crisis comms manager takes a certain type of person and it is clear from spending time with Woolfall that he is definitely the right type.

He combines understanding of the law - he has a law degree - and media with strong people skills, all crucial for dealing with the 'strange irrational behaviour' that many display when facing a difficult situation.

'Sometimes the job is part-therapy, part-crisis management. You know you may walk into a room and people will be anxious, stressed and sometimes hysterical. You are psychologically preparing people for interviews they may find unpleasant. But you become a bit like a doctor: this is the patient, they are displaying these symptoms and that is quite normal. There is a bedside manner you have to have with clients,' he says.

The word 'tremendous' comes up twice when former colleagues are asked to describe him.

'Alex is a tremendous coach of people. He has a lovely personable manner and is an incredibly fun and engaging person to work with. He brings life and soul to the job and the party,' says Bell Pottinger chairman David Wilson. 'He understands a problem and can articulate clearly what the solution should be and help people to convey a story appropriately.'

Another former colleague agrees: 'You will never meet a nicer person to work with than Alex. He is kind, hard-working, determined and has a tremendous character.'

But working on crises can take its toll - physically and mentally. Woolfall admits crisis work can impact on life outside the office. 'You can't say to a client in the middle of a crisis, "yes, it's awful but I do pilates at 5.30pm". A strong emotional bond develops between you and the client, as they want full access to you. But there is a team and everyone needs a break,' he says.

Woolfall has also not been able to switch off from every crisis.

As well as the McCann story, he was upset greatly by a Home Office dawn raid on illegal immigrants working at a food production factory in the north of England. Staff were seen running off across fields and jumping fences, while the factory manager thought he would have to close the plant because he knew he would not be able to find replacements.

'You get back on the train and walk into a posh PR agency but think "what have I just seen today?" I was very affected by it for some considerable time. It changes how you think politically because you realise there is a difference between reality and dinner-party conversations about illegal immigrants in Hampstead, where I live. You think "have you ever met any or seen where they work?",' he says.

But this is also something that the self-confessed news junkie loves about his work - the fact it opens his eyes.

'You see things you would not otherwise see and it gives you a more rounded view of the world. It stops you from sitting in a bubble in PR in London,' he says.

Meanwhile, Woolfall is looking forward to his fifth consecutive Christmas in the Australian sunshine - his 'injection of serotonin'.

He certainly deserves his break.

CV

2011 Head of corporate EMEA, Porter Novelli UK

2007 Head of issues & crisis management, Bell Pottinger Group

2006 Head of issues & crisis management, Weber Shandwick London

2000 Associate director; senior associate director; board director; managing director, issues & crisis management, Hill & Knowlton London

1996 Account manager; account director, Good Relations

1994 Press officer, Association of British Travel Agents

1990 Graduate trainee; press assistant; press officer, National Grid Company

WOOLFALL'S TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Getting the press officer job at ABTA. I acted as a spokesman on national radio and TV while in my twenties, which subsequently proved hugely valuable experience.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Jeff Lyes at Good Relations showed me how to write properly and drop the pseudo 'consultancy speak'. Damaris O'Hanlon (ex-H&K) taught me everything I needed to know about crisis management and David Wilson at Bell Pottinger gave me advice on what a proper boss should be like.

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

Spend more time being yourself than trying to impress others.

Speak and write in plain English.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Bags of initiative, enthusiasm and a sense of humour. Also a genuine fascination/obsession with how people communicate.

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