Profile: Pagett tackles 'sycophants' - Alex Pagett, director of corporate affairs, Hilton Group

It is something of a shock when mid-way through an interview that had hitherto concentrated on the noble subject of corporate reputation management, Alex Pagett pulls up his trouser-leg to reveal a colourful festive sock emblazoned 'I love my grandad'.

But the Scot - who has enjoyed a long PR career split between the public and private sectors, taking in jobs in Downing Street and at the Bank of Scotland - is nearing the end of his second year as director of corporate affairs at Hilton Group. The confidence his hosiery signifies befits his status as one of the sector's elder statesmen.

Pagett is responsible for all communications with the media, City and staff at the hotels and leisure giant, which runs 400 self-branded and Scandic hotels as well as Ladbrokes.

But 2004 will be particularly busy on the hotels front for Pagett, who plans to cut back the 27 agencies Hilton uses worldwide in a major cost cutting drive (PRWeek, 9 January). Pagett reiterates his CEO David Michels' cautiously spirited line about seeing 'a few chinks of light' in the travel industry but adds: 'You can't buck the market.'

During the interview 'reputation management' is a theme to which he returns repeatedly, describing it as his 'hobby-horse', and what he believes is the essence of corporate affairs.

'If you join a company where there's no buy-in from the very top, then you'll never make a difference. You'll find yourself in a meeting-and-greeting role: that's not PR,' says Pagett, for whom buy-in from his current chief executive is certainly not a problem, having formerly worked alongside Michels at the former gaming and hotel firm Stakis.

Pagett is a rather erratic interviewee, sometimes straying into enigmatic similies; he drops in expletives to add emphasis, but also uses the rather quaint and unfamiliar phrase 'being in the Tiddly Toms' to describe one of his former companies' financial woes. 'You need objectivity. You need to be able to tell someone they're talking shite. There's too much sycophancy in our industry.'

After graduating from Edinburgh University, Paggett joined Government Information Services where he worked for 21 years in Scotland and London, including positions at Number 10 and latterly as chief press officer in the Scottish Office.

During his time in Mrs Thatcher's Downing Street, Bernard Ingham was one of his 'mentors': 'He introduced secondments (to government) and was a real pro,' Pagett says of Thatcher's straight-talking PR aide, remembering times sitting alongside Ingham on the bureaucratic-sounding North Sea Oil Interdepartmental Committee.

He also worked alongside former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind, then a junior minister in the Scottish Office, who remembers Pagett as 'strong-willed, constantly coming up with new ideas and very creative'.

Given Pagett's career and lifestyle (a favourite hobby is shooting: 'rabbits and clays - actually, just put clays'), it seems nonsensical to ask... but is he a Tory? 'No,' he thunders, branding the 18 months he later spent as PR chief for Scottish Conservatives as his biggest career blunder.

He says his motivation was salary, adding he was chastised by the politicians for 'not being one of us'.

He moved on to Stakis, which at the time, he says, had 'demotivated staff, a cynical public and banks baying for blood.' The challenge provided him with the 'biggest kick' of his career. In 1999 he joined the Bank of Scotland, from which he was made redundant following its merger with the Halifax.

He says he was passed over for the top comms job in the merged entity and had no desire to stick around.

Pagett, 57, talks paternally of younger staff in terms of 'watching (them) grow'. And he talks fondly, too, of many journalists with whom he has sparred in the past.

The Scotsman executive editor Bill Jamieson says Pagett was dubbed 'Professor Pagett' by the press for the way he 'successfully passed himself off as a sonorous economist' when forced to present 'dry economic statistics' at the bank. 'He is a class act and has a discrete charm,' he adds.

With a plane to catch back to Scotland, the interview draws to a close, a weekend of taking his 'wife's Morgan' for a spin beckons. A few rabbits will be already scurrying for cover from the PR sharp-shooter with arresting socks.

RESUME

1980 Press officer, Downing Street

1986 Chief press officer, Scottish Office

1987 Director of comms, Scottish Conservative Party

1988 Director of corporate affairs, Stakis

1999 MD corporate affairs, Bank of Scotland

2002 Director of corporate affairs, Hilton Group

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