A few hours after our interview, Jon Phillips calls to set the record straight. After a 12-year rollercoaster ride in Heathrow Airport’s PR team, he is anxious he might have said a bit too much about Terminal 5, one his key achievements having been to persuade the Government to approve its construction, in the face of fierce opposition.
At the interview he had recalled having to argue in favour of the expansion at community meetings, which were ‘shall we say, well attended’ by impassioned local residents and green groups. ‘That was stuff I was involved with seven or eight years ago,’ Phillips says down the phone in his soft Wolverhampton tones. ‘It is easy to focus on confrontations with protesters, but my recent experience was about building relationships with the businesses that will use Terminal 5,’ he stresses.
The backtrack typifies Phillips’s tendency to stick his neck out, only to pull it back in again for diplomatic reasons.
When Phillips joins the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) ahead of the government body’s launch on 1 April, ‘dialogue’ and ‘relationship building’ will be paramount, which is why he wants to appear sensitive as well as a tough cookie.
The NDA will take responsibility for decommissioning and cleaning up Britain’s nuclear power installations, including the Windscale plant, which British Nuclear Fuels renamed Sellafield in 1981 to deflect the stigma of ‘the UK’s worst nuclear accident’, which happened there in the 1950s.
Even as it prepares to launch, the European Commission is investigating whether the NDA’s creation constitutes illegal state aid to the UK’s
nuclear industry, an inquiry that threatens the NDA’s existence.
Handling communications around radioactive sites and dealing with tetchy European commissioners will, Phillips says, require ‘constructive engagement’. Arm-twisting will be out of the question.
Hill & Knowlton public affairs managing director Tim Fallon, who was Heathrow Airport’s head of government relations when Phillips was head of media relations, recalls his winning charm with west London MPs.
On the other hand, he says Phillips is not afraid of confrontation: ‘He’s a bit of a bruiser. If you want to start a battle, Jon will want to be involved.’
British Airways head of corporate communications Iain Burns says: ‘Jon is straightforward and accessible. He is tough and will stick to the script, but is also prepared to find common ground.’
Phillips, a burly, amiable man of 38, started his PR career at consumer agencies Pielle & Co and The Public Relations Business. But he was always attracted, he says, by the hurly-burly of public controversy. He duly landed the role of Heathrow community relations manager, ‘a job that was clearly going to involve mixing it with local politicians, residents’ groups and the media.’
Phillips says he prefers tough negotiations and meetings with community leaders and businesses to the more unpredictable challenges he has had at Heathrow. He talks calmly about handling PR in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but confesses the Diana Ross incident of 1999 was ‘extraordinarily difficult to deal with’.
The American singer was arrested but released without charge after allegedly assaulting a female security guard at Heathrow. The incident generated acres of unwelcome coverage, and Phillips admits he had trouble dealing with it. The paparazzi camped outside the security guard’s home, and BAA feared a lawsuit from the US that never materialised.
Although the NDA is based in Cumbria, Phillips’s ten-strong PR team – to be built from scratch – will be based close to the levers of power in London.
‘Constructive engagement’ aside, Britain’s new nuclear body has a man who is not afraid of responsibility. Asked about his communications
philosophy, Phillips says: ‘There is a brand of PR in which people load the guns for others to fire. In my brand, you have to step up to the plate and fire the gun yourself.’