Profile: Ali Perkins, UK head of PR, Microsoft

Microsoft's UK head of PR is equally at home dealing with Bill Gates and juggling the firm's diverse comms issues, finds Alec Mattinson.

This week it was Microsoft's tie-up with Yahoo that got the thumbs-up from the EU. Last week it was a new Windows product for mobile phones. Week in, week out, there is always something new to keep Ali Perkins busy.

Perkins, Microsoft's UK head of PR, was named the top tech communicator in the 2009 PRWeek Power Book, for her ability to keep on top of the varied and vast communications of one of the world's most visible and commented-on brands.

But it is her confidence in working with some of the biggest names in global business that sets her apart, according to former colleague Philip Crawford, ex-CEO of Oracle and chairman of EDS Europe. As far as CVs go, working with Microsoft's Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Apple's Steve Jobs and Oracle's Larry Ellison makes hers among the most heavyweight imaginable.

'She has an outstanding ability to deal with very senior people,' says Crawford. 'She has the guts to stand her corner and is not afraid to say what is on her mind. You might say she has cojones.'

Perkins, 41, may be tough and strongwilled, but she is far from intimidating or divisive. Personable, approachable and engaging, she speaks briskly and fluently about life at Microsoft with an enthusiasm that is impossible to bluff.

She talks of Gates, Ballmer and Ellison with admiration, but the traits she highlights in them are just as applicable to herself. Ellison is 'very personable', Ballmer has 'passion' and Gates is 'extremely smart'.

She seems more comfortable outlining the nature of Microsoft's myriad comms functions and industry issues than her own career. 'Comms professionals are not used to being the story,' she muses.

Spending most of her working life in a cutting-edge tech environment, one might forgive her for becoming somewhat insular. But Perkins is a strategic thinker.

In that sense the varied challenges at Microsoft, from Xbox to server storage, are a neat fit. 'The multiple businesses here all have very different messages with very different audiences,' she explains. 'The real challenge is to pull that together into an overarching story that makes sense.'

David Brain, European CEO at Edelman, one of Microsoft's three retained agencies alongside Bite and 3 Monkeys, highlights her 'very, very rare' skill of bringing the firm's agencies together in a meaningful way. 'She is able to foster a real atmosphere of co-operation between agencies that would normally compete,' he says. 'The business gets shared out properly and she manages to get the best out of all of us - it's a very mature and clever approach.'

Microsoft is at the heart of new media and new communications tools and Perkins' approach to this brave new world typifies her positivity. Coping with Microsoft's 5,000 bloggers worldwide could panic the steadiest of comms heads, but she sees opportunities rather than threats.

'We need to embrace social media and participate. That will involve making mistakes along the way, but if you are risk-averse and don't like change then tech PR is not the place to be,' she notes.

And 'risk-averse' is not a phrase that sits comfortably with her. When asked if heading Microsoft's UK PR operation was initially intimidating, she seems slightly bemused. 'After first meeting the people that work here, I did not just want to work for Microsoft, I had to work here,' she says.

This hints at her drive, ambition and a word she uses often during the interview - passion. She is clearly passionate about the brand, but her zeal is most evident when talking about her hobby, horse riding: 'Horses have kept me sane throughout my career in this crazy industry,' she says. 'Riding has given me perspective. When you train it blocks out everything.'

She recently had a son with her equine surgeon husband, which has brought the delicate work/life balance quandary to the forefront of her mind. She acknowledges she is in the right job to undertake mobile working, as the firm's technology allows her to split her time between home, London and Microsoft's Reading offices and work hours that fit around her home life.

Despite the hectic schedule her energy remains undimmed. 'Learning to be a working mum does change things,' she says. 'But I have a huge challenge and don't want to lose that opportunity.'

After four years at Microsoft, Perkins insists she is 'not out of challenges'. But her vigour and drive suggests she is unlikely to ever allow herself to get stale in a role.

It may be that an expanded international brief at Microsoft awaits, but her corporate expertise is such that if she were to look elsewhere, there would be no shortage of high profile, perhaps non-tech, CEOs keen to add their names to her CV.


ALI PERKINS' TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Probably when Bull Information Systems hired me as a green 24-year-old to be its UK PR manager - although I had both agency and in-house experience I think it was on a budget so didn't hire a heavyweight.

I was very naive in navigating a complex organisation that didn't embrace communications very well, but it gave me the most amazing learning experience.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

My Gran - for true inspiration; Philip Crawford at Bull, who taught me about business and gave me belief in myself; and Nick Hayes, founder of Noiseworks, a PR genius who threw me in at the deep end - my first ever public presentation was to Lotus Software and we won the account.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

It's a very small world. Treat people with respect and professionalism and always expect them to hear what you say about them. And choose your battles carefully - being right is often not the most important thing.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

Enthusiasm, tenacity, common sense and an open mind.

 

CV

2006: Head of PR, UK, Microsoft

2003: Senior director EMEA PR, Siebel Systems

2000: Director of communications, Internet Incubator

1995: Corporate communications director, Oracle UK

1993: PR manager, Bull Information Systems

1990: Account manager, Noiseworks

1988: PR executive, INMOS Limited

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