Paul Mylrea has done well to come through his career unscathed. He has worked through numerous disasters, including floods, earthquake, the sinking of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the 7/7 bombings, when he was heading comms at Transport for London (TfL).
The 53-year-old, now director of comms for the Department for International Development (DfID), had his own near-death experience in 1992 when reporting for Reuters on the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru. He was on his way to his hotel in Lima when he decided to turn around and walk into a record shop. 'Then the bomb went off, and it killed 36 people,' he says. 'If I had been walking down that street... '
Mylrea's reputation for triggering chaos wherever he goes was cemented in the mid-1980s while visiting a friend in Luxembourg. He jokes it nearly turned into a coup: 'There was a bomb attack on some electricity pylons. It started on my arrival and ended as soon as I left.'
Mylrea's joviality is equally well known around Whitehall these days. He is large in stature and voice, with a booming laugh and an infectious smile. His team has started to follow his daughter's example in telling him his jokes aren't funny. 'My assistant says I could be more quiet. She likes me to stay in my office,' Mylrea admits.
NHS London director of comms Stephen Webb worked with Mylrea at TfL. He does recall Mylrea's bad jokes, but also his ability to build strong relationships with the chief executive while being equally close to his team. It was a skill that revealed itself during the 7/7 attacks. 'He was up there talking to the top people, making sure they were at the press conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, while being able to keep an eye on what his team was doing operationally,' says Webb, adding that Mylrea has 'some steel' when it comes to a fight.
Mylrea says of his own management style: 'I try to talk to as many people in my team as possible, but it's important to get the balance right between getting out and getting in people's hair.'
Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander recently said DfID was once the Government's best-kept secret - a problem that led to the appointment of Mylrea in 2007.
He has since brought in sweeping changes - introducing BBC political correspondent James Hardy as head of news, building a new website and developing a more professional planning offer.
Despite this, Mylrea seems uncertain about how far his team has moved DfID on from its 'secret' status. 'It is very difficult to see. We'd like to think we have made an impact, but we need to do further analysis.'
The latest plan is the new UKaid brand, developed to highlight where public money is being used to tackle global poverty. As Mylrea says, 'the public didn't know what was being done in their name'.
DfID has emerged as one of very few departments that will be allowed to continue with the same level of funding, regardless of which party wins the next general election. Was Mylrea surprised when the Conservatives said they would protect DfID? He responds with irony: 'As a civil servant, I'm never surprised.'
He adds: 'We're in a different position to most departments, but that doesn't mean we can ease off comms. We can't waste money; we don't put posters on buses.'
Despite the assurances, Mylrea admits there are challenges ahead, not least the prevailing economic mood: 'British people are more worried about their own situation than what happens abroad. It's easy for people to support things when they are comfortable, but it's more important to reduce poverty around the world.'
With current campaigns focusing on East Africa and Pakistan, the perennial disaster man says DfID constantly works on keeping a strategic focus and not just falling into an endless cycle of crisis comms. 'Things are happening all the time,' he says.
Mylrea is in the running for the 2010 CIPR presidency job, perhaps fittingly, considering its current troubles.
'The CIPR is going through a difficult time,' he admits, adding that he would like to see the CIPR become the professional body of choice for the Government Communication Network.
Over the course of a career during which he has seen some particularly tragic times, the main lesson Mylrea has learned is a solemn one.
Having witnessed floods in El Salvador, an earthquake in Afghanistan and civil war in Liberia, among other tragedies, he says: 'Nothing helps you prepare. There are times you remember, because you go through a lot. Learning to handle that is important, but it is not something I would recommend that people go through.'
PAUL MYLREA'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
Firstly, getting a job at the East Manchester Reporter in the late 1970s. I wanted to start out in local newspapers. The EMR offered me a job and I didn't ask how much it wanted to pay me. Big mistake. Secondly, switching from a part-PR role at Reuters Foundation to a full one at Oxfam. I took a massive salary cut, but it was the best opportunity I ever had.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
I had mentors at Reuters but I have always admired Julia Simpson, who was at the Home Office and is now at BA. I nearly worked for her a couple of times. She was always hugely generous with advice. I have tremendous respect for her.
- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Get experience of every possible aspect of PR, not just in one sector. Public or private sector, the comms directors of the future are people who can happily work across all disciplines of PR. I was lucky to get that chance.
- What qualities do prize in new recruits?
Passion and determination. There has got to be fire in the belly.
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2007: Communications director, Department for International Development
2004: Director of group media relations, Transport for London
2002: Head of media, Oxfam GB
1982: Various roles including editor of AlertNet.org, lobby correspondent and bureau chief, Chile, Bolivia and Peru, Reuters