Profile: Diana Soltmann, Millbank PR; Potent force in prison politics

When Diana Soltmann was handling PR for the launch of satellite TV channel UK Gold there was little to suggest that several years later it would lead to her involvement in the debate over who is running our prison system. Yet so it has proved.

When Diana Soltmann was handling PR for the launch of satellite TV

channel UK Gold there was little to suggest that several years later it

would lead to her involvement in the debate over who is running our

prison system. Yet so it has proved.



Soltmann’s client at UK Gold was one Derek Lewis, the television

executive who subsequently became director general of the Prison

Service. When Lewis was unceremoniously removed from his post by Michael

Howard with the blame for a series of jail-breaks laid implicitly at his

door, it was Soltmann to whom he turned.



Her agency, Millbank, mounted a media blitz that saw Lewis popping up

here, there and everywhere to fight his corner. The skill with which

this campaign was handled has shown Soltmann as a force to be reckoned

with.



The media could easily have portrayed Lewis’ response as a case of sour

grapes. That they did not - and the debate ranged across operational and

policy matters - speaks volumes. ‘Derek wanted to make sure that the

central issues were addressed,’ says Soltmann, ‘if he had gone quietly

none of this would have come to light.’



Quietly is probably the last adverb one would apply to the Lewis

swansong. On programmes as diverse as Newsnight, Channel 4 News, Call

Nick Ross and the Jimmy Young show he argued that the Home Secretary’s

interference had made his job impossible.



But what of the woman who engineered his fight back? In her Great

Portland Street office the Soltmann appears composed and at ease.



Emily Bell, media business editor of the Observer, considers her to be

one of the most straightforward and effective PR people around. ‘She

delivers what she says she is going to deliver,’ says Bell.



Millbank now has 10 staff and an impressive client roster including

AT&T, Disney Channel, LV Group and Novotel. In management terms, the

agency is very much a double act - Soltmann has worked together with her

fellow director Jackie Murphy since they were both at Good Relations in

the early 1980s. From there the two moved to The Communication Group in

its heady start-up days. Four years later they were running Royle

Communications.



In 1994, with Royle deciding to focus on its core business, Soltmann and

Murphy completed a management buyout of the PR business and renamed it

Millbank. One of the investors in the MBO was Good Relations founder

Tony Good who today is the agency’s non-executive chairman. LV Group,

whose products include Luncheon Vouchers, has been a client of

Soltmann’s since the mid-1980s. In February it briefly moved its

business to Charles Barker but is now back with Millbank.



‘Diana was and remains today the most professional PR person I’ve come

across,’ says LV Group managing director Sue Harvey.



‘Diana’s got a strong intuitive as well as a professional feel for

what’s right,’ adds Eurotunnel communications director Dominic Fry, who

worked closely with Soltmann when he was at AT&T.



Soltmann says she doesn’t want the agency to grow too large - she

envisages an optimum size of 20 or so staff. Is this then a case of

fattening up the company for selling off? The question gets Soltmann on

to a topic that is clearly dear to her heart: short-termism.



‘In this country there are far too many people who when they set up

companies are already thinking of exit strategies,’ she sighs. ‘On the

Continent more businesses get handed down through the generations,’ she

says.



Other pet hates are clients who expect their entire corporate image to

be transformed within a couple of months and incompetent PRs who give

the industry a bad name. Scorn for these bugbears aside, Soltmann

remains remarkably composed, exhibiing the sort of social facility that

would do an employee of the foreign office proud. It comes as scant

surprise to learn that she is a diplomat’s daughter and spent many of

her formative years at far-flung postings, including Brazzaville in the

Congo.



One suspects Michael Howard wishes he had more communications advisers

with the level-headedness and nous of Soltmann to rely on.



HIGHLIGHTS



1976-1978 Management trainee, Gallaher

1978-86 Good Relations

1986-1990 Director, The Communication Group

1990-1994 Managing director, Royle Communications

1994 Managing director, Millbank Public Relations



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