Profile: Jonathan Hemus, founder and director, Insignia

Jonathan Hemus is drawing on his experiences of handling crisis PR for England cricket to build up his own agency, finds Gemma O'Reilly.

Jonathan Hemus
Jonathan Hemus

The world of cricket is buzzing at the moment on the back of England's recent triumph over Australia as part of the Ashes series. So spare a thought for the man who helped defend the sport's good name just five years ago.

Jonathan Hemus was called in by the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2004 while working at Porter Novelli on a crisis brief after allegations of match- fixing and corruption rocked the sport.

'I was desperate to win the business,' he recounts. 'I love cricket and cared that its reputation wasn't destroyed. Fortunately we were appointed and over the next few years we dealt with individual crises as they arose and helped the ICC to adopt a more proactive approach to communications.'

Fortunately, with Hemus' help these crises have now passed, mainly as a result of measures the ICC has implemented to prevent match-fixing. He can now sit and watch a match safe in the knowledge he helped to protect the sport's reputation.

Like most crisis experts, Hemus, 44, is calm, collected and lets little slip unintentionally. It is left to Neil Bayley, his successor at Porter Novelli, to reveal: 'Jonathan does a mean Axl Rose impression, which I once had the pleasure of introducing on stage.'

Hemus does not at first glance appear the sort of person who would impersonate a heavy metal legend on stage, nor can one imagine him following Genesis 'to London, Manchester and Paris, and even the Kensington Odeon where the DVD of the tour premiered'.

Despite his unlikely rock 'n' roll tendencies, he presents a cool-headed demeanour that should stand him in good stead as he attempts to navigate a start-up consultancy in a turbulent economic climate. Insignia, a corporate comms agency, was launched last year after Hemus reached his ten-year anniversary as head of crisis and issues management at Porter Novelli.

'The economy was doing great when I made my decision to leave,' he says. 'Then five minutes later it completely bombed. I'd be lying if I said it didn't concern me but it didn't make me have second thoughts.'

Instead, he believes the change and issues management services he offers are more in demand in a recession than services offered by other sectors: 'Crisis, change issues and building a strong corporate reputation are much in demand.'

Still in its infancy, the agency comprises Hemus and a network of associates such as an online reputation manager and a media expert. For him, it is a deliberate move to keep the agency small initially in order to give clients the senior counsel they expect: 'A client knows when I walk into a pitch that I will be working on the business. I'm not going to sacrifice quality.'

He already has a number of clients signed up including two global healthcare companies. He hopes to re-enact the long-term client relationships he built at Porter Novelli, in particular his nine-year account with Gillette. He headed up the Porter Novelli European team looking after the Gillette business, including the brand's link-up with David Beckham and its World Cup sponsorship.

'I'm looking for long-term relationships,' he says and laughs when he realises he sounds like he is writing a dating agency profile. After working at other people's agencies for 20 years, he relishes being his own boss. 'It's refreshing to make your own decisions and to know that if it succeeds it's largely down to you.' On the downside, however, it means if the agency fails there is no-one else to blame, he admits.

On the rare occasions when he lets his guard slip it is unsurprising to find cricket is involved. His love for the sport is renowned and former colleague Colin Shevills reveals Hemus' calm exterior drops when England plays. He remembers watching the final test at the Oval on television in 2005 when the camera panned around to the corporate hospitality boxes and revealed Hemus on the screen. 'It chanced upon a large, follically challenged individual dancing an alcohol-fuelled victory jig. Jonathan had obviously been enjoying his client's hospitality a little too much.'

When reminded of his moment of fame, Hemus jokes: 'What many people don't know is that I also appeared on TV at England's previous iconic Ashes win, the 1981 Botham's Ashes series. Wrapped in a Union Jack, I can be clearly seen as a 16-year-old schoolboy celebrating Botham's fifth wicket at Edgbaston.'

While Hemus humbly admits he is not striving to build the next Porter Novelli or Hill & Knowlton, he is still aiming high. 'In five years' time it would be lovely to be in PRWeek's top 50,' he says. As long as he continues to play with a straight bat and there are not too many catches dropped, he just might make it.

 

 

JONATHAN HEMUS' TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Joining Porter Novelli, a company I held in enormously high esteem, as deputy for its crisis, issues and media training services. Within a month my boss announced her departure and I had the chance to lead all three areas. Suddenly - and somewhat scarily - my role expanded dramatically.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Wendy Joyce, my first boss at engineering company Delta, who gave me a fantastic grounding in the basics of PR and allowed me to 'run with it'. And David Pressley, my director at Barkers, who introduced me to the world of agency life, corporate PR and El Vino.

- Advice to people climbing the career ladder

Find yourself a good role model or mentor, and volunteer for everything, even when the opportunity is out of your comfort zone. Always adopt a positive attitude. Treat others with respect and integrity.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

A blend of vitality and thoughtfulness - someone who is always asking "why?" and who has the energy and passion to seek out and deliver the answer.

 

CV

2008: Founder and director, Insignia

2007: Head of client service, Porter Novelli

2004: UK corporate practice leader, then global crisis and issues speciality leader, Porter Novelli

1999: Head of UK crisis and issues management and media training, Porter Novelli

1994: Deputy managing director, The Reputation Managers

1989: Account director, Barkers

1986: Corporate communications manager, Delta

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