That's ‘flight attendant’ John Neilson.
As he sits down, a chorus of dissenters from around the plane demands he give the safety demonstration as well. A real stewardess takes over and Neilson laughs, looking rather carefree for a man in a role he admits is currently one of the toughest in UK PR.
But today, a jaunt for journalists to the Royal International Air Tattoo in Fairford, Gloucestershire, is a welcome respite for Neilson. As the chief spokesperson for BAE Systems, he sits in the frontline of a seemingly ever-increasing wave of negative publicity against the UK’s largest exporter. ‘It is one of the hardest roles, but that’s why it’s one of the best,’ says Neilson. ‘The challenges are always changing.’
The challenges arise from allegations, still making headlines this year, that BAE was involved in corruption to sell arms overseas. BAE strenuously denies all the accusations. But the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is investigating the firm’s practices in countries such as Tanzania, Chile and South Africa. The Guardian has a whole section of its website, called The BAE Files, dedicated to the subject.
Nevertheless, the 47-year-old Neilson is utterly convinced of his company’s innocence. ‘I couldn’t do the job if I wasn’t,’ he says. ‘You can’t lie in this role. Perhaps Max Clifford can, but if I did I would be in trouble.’
So does he say ‘no comment’ a lot then?
‘You always answer the question. We always give a statement,’ Neilson replies vehemently. ‘“No comment” is not an answer unless you legally can’t say anything else.’
Newspaper journalists who have dealt with Neilson support this assertion; they say he always gets back to them. But in recent months he has been made to say ‘no comment’ more than he would have liked. ‘BAE is often working on contracts that are between governments. These are matters of national security and are confidential,’ he says. ‘The problem is, when you don’t talk it is assumed that it is an indication of improper dealings.’
Neilson says it did not help BAE when the SFO dropped its investigation into the company’s dealings with Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Had the probe continued, he would have been able to field directors to talk about the company’s innocence. Now, BAE has to face a wave of suspicion instead. ‘There are huge numbers of stakeholders and 88,000 employees,’ says Neilson. ‘It will always make headlines. We have to address perceptions and that is done through communication. We have to show how important BAE is to the UK.’
By addressing perceptions, Neilson seeks to remove the stigma associated with the arms industry. ‘The UN says every country has the right to defend itself,’ he argues. ‘We provide the best equipment to men and women who risk their lives, and that’s something to be proud of.’
Neilson confesses he has been having a lot of lunches recently, meeting journalists and showing them ‘what BAE is about’. An aircraft screeches past, as if to remind us exactly what it is all about.
‘I’ve actually trained as a pilot; I’m thinking of doing some more flying,’ says Neilson, who also reveals he’s a fan of loud music. The AC/DC track playing over a PA system as the Tornado screams low across the runway suggests flying and loud music are hardly strange bedfellows.
Neilson counters the claim that BAE is subject to a jaundiced media view. A poll from Ipsos MORI showed that journalists see BAE as a market leader, recognise it is no longer just an aerospace firm (it was formed out of British Aerospace) and generally see it as essential to national security. However, they also score its ethical credentials 35 per cent lower than average.
‘Even The Guardian gives us a fair hearing,’ maintains Neilson. However, he adds: ‘I respect the fact that David Leigh and Rob Evans [two journalists who have sought to prove BAE corruption] have a job to do, but I do not agree with some of the tactics used or the unsubstantiated and damaging allegations printed.
‘The UK press is the toughest in the world in its determination to get information. It’s the most challenging to deal with.’
Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster executive director Andrew Robinson, who works on the BAE corporate account, describes Neilson as a ‘blend of street fighter and media strategist’.
‘John has a tough, pragmatic style of working. He is very clear on what he wants and what he expects of you,’ says Robinson. ‘His respect for individuals working for him is based on operational strength – delivering serious results is everything.’
The impression is that Neilson can be very demanding, although he stresses that he would ‘like more time to be strategic’ and is ‘getting better at it with experience’.
Nevertheless, the friendly abuse on the plane after his dalliance as a flight attendant – and lunchtime ribbing that he is the ‘comms team boffin’ – suggest he has a good working relationship with his team.
‘I originally wanted to be a pilot but I didn’t study hard enough,’ reveals Neilson at the end of the interview. ‘Like the pilots, I’ve got to have good peripheral vision; there are challenges everywhere. But it helps that I’m excited by the products; I’d challenge anyone not to be.’
As Neilson has his photograph taken, shielding himself from the squally weather with a BAE umbrella designed not to invert or carry you away, in front of a multimillion-pound flying machine, it is easy to understand his point. This is a serious business – but one that has its own appeal.
What was your biggest career break?
A job at Lucas Industries failed to materialise and, as a result, I found myself joining what was British Aerospace [it became BAE Systems in 1999 after a merger with Marconi Electric Systems]. The move gave me the freedom and flexibility to develop my personal skills base, international experience and my whole career more quickly than might otherwise have been possible.
What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Personal relationships with key media contacts are all-important. Know your audience and talk to them. Don’t be overly reliant on technology. Learn to delegate and never lose your sense of humour.
Who was your most notable mentor?
Sir Ian Gibson, former managing director of Nissan’s operations in Europe. He was an outstanding leader and first-class communicator. He showed me the value of seeking continuous improvement in all you do.
What characteristics do you prize in new recruits?
They have to be adaptable, willing and eager to learn. Our team members have to be quick learners to get up to speed in a fast-paced environment. Being part of a global company means they will be required to travel frequently, often alone, so confidence and self-motivation are key.
Director, group media relations, BAE Systems
Comms director, Europe, BAE Systems
VP, communications, Gripen International
Comms manager, British Aerospace
Comms manager, British Aerospace Military Aircraft