The evolution of Chris McLaughlin from garrulous, opinionated, loose cannon to consummate financial PR man is an unlikely one.
His seat at the very top table of one of the UK’s premier businesses may not on the surface seem an ideal fit for a man known for his straight talking and openness with the media.
But after a career that has taken in the consumer, celebrity and broadcast worlds, McLaughlin’s current incarnation is as a key force behind satellite firm Inmarsat’s recent IPO and entry into the FTSE 100. The firm is one of the City’s few winners in recent years – a solid business that bridges the aeronautical and maritime industries as well as the military and the media. He talks with passion and knowledge about Inmarsat’s new products and ventures. These include a $1.5bn launch of three new satellites and how its comms technology can and has helped in disaster areas.
McLaughlin is the first to concede his unwavering refusal to compromise has caused a few run-ins over the years. ‘I am a firm believer that you should stand up for what you believe in,’ he admits.
To illustrate the point, McLaughlin reels off a tale of how his straight talking cost him a plum PR job at the then newly launched Channel Five. ‘At the end of the interview I was asked if there was anything else I wanted to say, which is
always fatal for me,’ he recalls.
The ‘something else’ was that the channel’s strategy of spending three times as much on branding as on content was a bad idea. ‘I got a hand-written note saying they were continuing the search,’ he shrugs.
Those who work closest with McLaughlin have little truck with the idea he is an awkward – even egotistical – customer. He is ‘one of the professional good guys, and one of the best media strategists’, according to Allan Biggar, ex-Burson-Marsteller CEO and now chairman of All About Brands.
Roland Rudd, senior partner of Finsbury, who managed Inmarsat’s IPO PR, said: ‘Chris has a brilliant intuitive feel for how the market is going to react to company events. He always tests his views to destruction and his superb sense of humour keeps him going when things get tough.’
And Jane Henry, global PR director at mobile comms firm SpinVox, who worked with McLaughlin in both in-house and agency worlds, says he is committed to protecting the reputation of the companies with which he works. ‘He is tough when necessary,’ she adds.
The ever-present glint in his eye is brightened further when he mentions that after this interview he is jetting off to the Inmarsat-sponsored Volvo Ocean Race in Singapore. A keen sailor, he enthuses about the opportunity it offers to show off the firm’s maritime broadband capabilities, but he says he will be keeping his own sea legs firmly on shore.
‘Many years ago I had a swim in the Irish sea in the middle of the night,’ he says with typical self-deprecating wit. ‘I haven’t been that enthusiastic about going offshore since – if you can’t get back to the bar in the evening then the race is too long.’
But the Groucho regular is no fair-weather seaman. He was European champion in his sailing class three times, finished third in the world championships for two years running and came within a whisker of going to the Olympics in the 1980s. He relishes his tales of the sea, with only a tinge of regret that he did not get a crack at Olympic gold. He muses that he might yet have one last outing at the world championships in 2010 ‘as long as I can get the zimmer frame around the mast’.
Throughout his broadcast and corporate career, McLaughlin, 49, has had to stay ahead of social and technological change – but there is one area where he does miss the old days. ‘I’m the last unreconstructed Thatcherite in Britain,’ he unashamedly states.
Horrified by the shambles the Tories had become around a decade ago, he decided to get his hands dirty. He was elected as a local councillor in his native Merton and almost stood for Wimbledon. The introduction of Cameron’s ‘A-list’ spelled the end of his political aspirations and, though still a keen supporter, the new era of consensus politics leaves him cold.
Unsurprisingly, his aversion for professional ‘yes’ men is not reserved exclusively for the political sphere. He explains his stance in a typically forthright way: ‘I have little time for the smile and handshake brigade, who will go either way depending on what they think the chairman wants.’
After 25 years in the business, it is safe to say there is little danger of McLaughlin becoming a ‘yes’ man.
Chris McLaughlin’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
I was working in a ski shop after university trying to work out what to do with myself, when one day I served Melinda and Alan Killkenny – the founders of PR agency Grayling. Out of the blue they came back and asked me to run the Salomon Rossignol PR account. Without them I wouldn’t have known what PR was.
What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Read everything. A lot of the stuff I read 10-15 years ago and seemed to have little relevance at the time gradually becomes woven into your experience and enables you to give a view.
Who was your most notable mentor?
I’ve never had a mentor, but I’ve had heroes – Lord Tim Bell would be at the top. I’ve never met anybody who has so much passion for the printed word and media.
What do you look for in new recruits?
A sense of humour. You can learn anything, but if you haven’t got a sense of the ultimate ridiculousness of everything you will tear yourself apart under the pressure.
2004 VP, external affairs, Inmarsat
2000 VP of PR, Cable Partners Europe
2000 VP of corporate affairs, Visa International (Europe)
1996 EMEA public affairs director, Philip Morris
1995 Corporate affairs director, BBC Worldwide
1990 Head of PR, Carlton
1987 Head of PR, BSB
1985 Account director, Charles Barker
1983 Account executive, Grayling