Sam Barratt has been chased by men with AKA rifles in Uganda, has door-stepped gunmen in Acton with the BBC, and managed to block Starbucks from buying Ethiopia's coffee patents. In his previous ten years at Oxfam, the past four as head of media, he spent many weeks on the road experiencing 'the crushing emptiness of poverty', including the aftermath of a bombing campaign in Afghanistan in an area starved of aid.
So, when PRWeek comes face to face with Barratt, it is slightly surprising to discover that he looks nothing like an action hero, but is immaculately dressed in a business suit, calmly sipping Earl Grey tea and looking every inch the corporate PR man.
He left Oxfam on 7 March to be director of media at 1Goal, the campaign touted as the next Make Poverty History. 1Goal aims to use this summer's FIFA World Cup, the first in Africa, to get the 72 million children across the world still excluded from education, into schools.
'I always said you leave Oxfam only for the right thing,' says Barratt, 'but this is a real opportunity to achieve something significant.' The campaign has the backing of FIFA, 80 footballers and 20 mobile phone companies, who will contact their combined one billion users in the run-up to the event. 'By the time it begins, this campaign will be unmissable,' he claims.
Barratt takes an intellectual approach to the changing world of communications. 'Effective press officers are always five paces ahead of what their organisation is thinking and are prepared to take big risks. We are the vanguard of a new relationship between media, international journalism and creative collaborations,' he says.
At Oxfam, Barratt pioneered these collaborations, getting legendary photographer Rankin to go to the Congo (October 2008) and virtual band Gorillaz illustrator Jamie Hewlett to visit Bangladesh (December 2009). He is an advocate of bringing external people in to open-source creative ideas: 'In-house teams produce in-house thinking sometimes and they can become underexposed. I've always tried to be at the hard edge of having one foot in the organisation and one very much outside.'
Plan UK's head of comms, and Barratt's former counterpart at the British Red Cross, Leigh Daynes, says his talent is for creating partnerships: 'He's one of those stand-out individuals in terms of insight, talent and the ability to work in a collegiate way with others. He's very results-oriented, has a spine of steel and knows how to deliver. He is going to be a phenomenal asset to the 1Goal campaign.'
Despite his title of director of media, Barratt takes a very broad view of what media means. He believes the rise of digital means that PROs are no longer reliant on traditional media journalists to give their stories space. Instead, they can go directly to sites where the public gather. He also believes PROs should be networked with high-level directors and executive editors about issues, 'not just journalists'.
Barratt says his desire to challenge the norm comes from his upbringing. His mother is a 'left-leaning' family therapist, while his father is a missile engineer for British Aerospace, who 'spends a lot of time blowing things up'. He notes: 'There was always a sense of strong argument and debate in the family. I'm probably seen as someone that is innovative and brings different people into the room.'
But he adds that, despite appearances, he is not a corporate PR type: 'My sense is that if you do the big stuff, all the practical smaller aspects will follow. We're in this to create change and you've got to be prepared to be single-minded about pursuing it.
Effective media work is about scratching, nagging, itching and getting incessant noise on something so that something has to be done about it.'
Barratt has a long standing passion for Africa. At the age of 22, after a stint selling Apple computers, he moved to Namibia to teach 15-year-olds English and football, and travelled around the continent. 'It makes you appreciate what you take for granted over here,' he says.
Amy Barry, Global Witness' head of comms and Barratt's former deputy, says: 'Sam was always supportive and approachable as a manager. He strove to be excellent at his job and often sought out and was receptive to constructive feedback. I admired his ambition, his drive to make things accessible to the "man on the street" and his ability not to let things stress him out.'
Barratt lives in Oxford with his wife (also in international development) and two small children. He is a 'very aggressive football player' and a Watford fan. But his aim of making 1Goal as big as Make Poverty History may be more realistic than his team topping the Premier League.
SAM BARRATT'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
A previous boss disappearing for two weeks never to return was helpful.
I then ran Oxfam's global media during the tsunami, Make Poverty History and wars in Afghanistan and Darfur.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
Magic Lantern MD Anthony Lilley and Polis director Charlie Beckett have been fantastic in helping me to think differently about how digital reframes the identity and purpose of organisations. Standard Chartered Bank vice-chairman Ann Grant and Scarlett McGwire,a former trustee of Oxfam, both gave me salient advice on leading Oxfam's comms, and the IDEO team for new thinking.
- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Listen and ask questions, work with inspiring people, stretch into areas that make you feel uncomfortable, have a wide network of interesting people you can talk to and keep your head down; it is when you are at your best that things will happen for you.
- What do you prize in new recruits?
Hunger, integrity and candour, plus understanding how media connect and influence politics, and being digitally and multimedia capable.
2010: Director of media, 1Goal
2005: Head of media, Oxfam
2004 (August): Acting head of media, Oxfam
2004: Regional media officer, East Africa, Oxfam
2000: Press officer, Oxfam
1999: Senior account manager, Midnight Communications