Rory Godson - The discreet firefighter

The Powerscourt founder tells Alec Mattinson how an ethos of diplomacy and integrity has made his City agency so in demand.

Beyond connections: Godson says of his team's approach to financial PR
Beyond connections: Godson says of his team's approach to financial PR

Described in one national newspaper as the City's fourth emergency service, Powerscourt founder Rory Godson cuts a rather gentler figure than his Red Adair reputation might suggest.

Softly spoken, thoughtful and self-effacing, it is only the language he uses that points to his relish for taking on some of UK PLC's toughest battles.

When describing Powerscourt's impressive CV of 'special situations' dealt with, he speaks of 'standing side by side in the fight', 'battle scars' and 'taking blows' for clients.

A glance at the agency's recent work suggests why these combat metaphors are apt. Godson and his firm have worked with, among others, BP on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, News Corp's Management and Standards Committee and Nat Rothschild in his battle over coal miner Bumi.

Godson also talks with the assuredness that comes with running a business that has found its niche. Labelled a 'discreet corporate fixer' in another paper, it is a hat he is happy to wear: 'We are the people you turn to in times of stress, but we are not the arms and legs telling the stories.'

He continues: 'Corporate affairs has risen to the top table, these people don't need us to tell their story - the most important thing we can offer clients is perspective.'

'He's a straightforward pragmatist,' recalls BP's former longstanding head of media, and now a sometime adviser to Powerscourt, Roddy Kennedy. 'He is honest and has the authority to advise on the realities of serious situations in a practical way.'

Godson details the agency's core offering as a three-stage process: perspective - giving clients an independent view; manufacturing - sitting down in a collegial way to plan messaging; and planned distribution - how to get that messaging to relevant audiences. It is a USP that has seen the agency experience rapid growth during a time when the received wisdom is that financial PR is struggling to modernise.

Powerscourt's revenues have doubled since 2009 and the agency's recently inhabited offices will enable it to build its team from 31 to 55 in two years' time.

Despite his agency's growing specialisation in high-level corporate issues, 'financial PR' is not a label Godson shies away from. 'That discreet advice is married to a perfect understanding of financial PR,' he notes.

Godson looks after the special situations business, while former FTI Consulting MD Giles Sanderson handles its financial PR offering and ex-investment banker Victoria Palmer-Moore runs corporate comms.

Although around 70 per cent of the agency's income is retained, Powerscourt was tenth in the mergermarket M&A 2012 table for global M&A, working on 56 deals worth US$52.5bn - in 2011 the agency was 81st in the table.

It is a rise that belies the outdated notion that Godson's overriding focus is looking after Irish firms in London. Its Irish client list is illustrious - notably defending Aer Lingus against Ryanair's repeated advances - but Godson thinks perceptions of the agency have already moved on.

'Anyone starting a business would love that problem - being go-to people for a substantial business community,' he says. 'If anything the perception gap now is just how many bid situations we've been involved in.'

It is a decade since Godson stepped away from Goldman Sachs to launch the business alongside current Prudential comms chief John Murray.

His time at Goldman in Europe was brief, but valuable. 'Goldman is an extraordinary place,' he remembers. 'But if you're going to go in-house I felt you needed to be in head office right in the flow of information.'

Godson is as impeccably well-connected as one might expect for a former Sunday Times business editor, but he argues the financial PR game has changed. 'Historically people in our industry traded on their contacts book and who they knew,' he explains. 'We think that's a redundant and fatuous approach. In fact we say to clients that if our plan is ever to take you to see a certain editor, just pull out a gun and shoot us.'

Godson stresses the importance of the 'integrity' of the offer, from culture, loyalty and rewarding staff to client trust. He admits to 'agonising' over recruitment decisions, acknowledging a lack of numbers has perhaps inhibited the agency's past growth.

But in that 'integrity' mix is also the agency's work on some contentious issues - such as the LSE over its links to the Gaddafi regime in Libya and the mining group of Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz locked in dispute with the government of Guinea.

Godson bats away any implied criticism. 'We believe in our clients,' he says. 'Beny Steinmetz is a good example - he felt the company was misunderstood. Beny is a fantastic guy - you work for people because you like them and want them to succeed.'

Even when talk turns to life outside the office, the responsibility of client service looms large. 'I'd be a liar if I said I had a lot of time for hobbies,' he shrugs. 'If I have a client that pays £10k a month, on the first of the month I owe them £10k - every day you owe the client so you're never switched off.'

Nonetheless, the former sports journalist still loves the drama of the sporting world. Godson, who recently turned 50, even frames the future of his business with a tale from Ireland's sporting past.

He tells the story of John Aldridge, in his words 'the most unlikely looking athlete you've ever seen', but a prodigious goal scorer for Liverpool and the Republic of Ireland. Asked late in his career how he scored so many, Godson recalls that Aldridge simply said: 'I just go where there are no defenders.'

'I'm determined to put my colleagues into that position where they are able to put the ball in the back of the net time and time again,' Godson concludes.

The City's fourth emergency service and playmaker extraordinaire - it is little wonder Godson's talents are in such demand.

CV

2004 Co-founder, Powerscourt

2002 Director of corporate affairs, EMEA, Goldman Sachs

2001 Business editor, The Sunday Times

1996 Ireland editor, The Sunday Times

1993 Deputy editor, Sunday Tribune

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Being recruited by John Witherow at The Sunday Times and working with him for seven years. He'll be appalled I've said that, but John's support has been invaluable.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I'm fortunate to have worked with some fantastic people - it's difficult to single someone out, but Peter Sutherland (chairman of Goldman Sachs International) was enormously supportive when I left to set up Powerscourt.

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

Be nice to people - I'm sure I fail on that every day, but most of the clients that we work with and people who do well in life have treated other people with respect.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Comms skills: reading, writing, listening, talking and knowing when to shut up and say nothing. Also physical stamina and the capacity for hard work.

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