Olly Grender didn’t go to university. Instead, she says that
Westminster was her training ground. There she became a master of the
art of ’covert’ persuasion, of fixing and lobbying behind the scenes.
But what about the arts of overt persuasion, the art of stating your
case very publicly?
Does Grender, who is nothing if not a political animal, have the very
different skills required for that game?
Her impressive track record suggests she does. Grender became a speech
writer for Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown in the mid-1980s, just
a couple of years after starting work for the party as a researcher.
She swiftly rose to become communications director where she acquired a
reputation as an effective and, at times, aggressive operator. She left
after nine years to manage a team of 40 at housing charity Shelter,
where she is widely credited with turning round its image.
’She was an excellent boss, a good manager, accessible and a shrewd team
builder,’ says her former deputy Rachel O’Brien. But her biggest
contribution was strategic. ’She set Shelter on a different, less
confrontational path which allowed us to be far more effective with the
new Government after the 1997 election.’
At Shelter, Grender first learnt the importance of integrating public
affairs with media relations. ’We had the two functions in the
communications office and there were continuous tensions between the two
Sometimes one undermined the other. For instance if Shelter was in
dialogue with a Government department it would be very unhelpful to
appear in the press criticising the Government at the same time,’ she
However, she believes that, when used in tandem, media relations and
public affairs can be a very powerful tool. ’Sometimes a Government may
view issues through the prism of the media. Often the Government may
well respond to issues that are in the public arena. So sometimes you
have to win your case in the media as well as behind the scenes,’ she
The last year has been a period of great change for Grender. She has
moved house, got married and changed jobs. But at 37, her open features
and friendly personal style still hint at the untainted idealism of
youth. ’She should do well dealing with journalists. She is likable, she
is scrupulous, a tough manager and she has integrity ,’ says Peter
Bingle, managing director of public affairs consultancy GPC, who has
known her since her days working for the Liberal Democrats.
Grender joined public affairs specialist Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn last
year. The recent announcement that the consultancy is moving out of
straight lobbying and has rebranded itself LLM Communications, means
that dyed-in-the-wool political spin doctor Grender will now head its
new media relations division.
The company was founded by three New Labour stalwarts on the basis that
it would provide pure political consultancy. So why the U-turn? ’It’s
not a change of direction, just a natural progression in response to
client demand,’ says Grender. ’Politics and the media are inextricably
Politics must connect with public affairs. The more we looked at it, the
more we recognised the need for a distinct media unit,’ she
But just once or twice during our meeting there is evidence that perhaps
she has yet to unlearn some of the lessons acquired in those years spent
around the Palace of Westminster.
Gender says she joined LLM because of the range of clients offered by
agency life. ’I had always planned to leave Shelter after four years and
Neal Lawson (managing director of LLM) handled the Shelter business.
It’s a comfortable compromise between dealing with a different issue
every five minutes, as I did for the Lib Dems, and dealing with just one
in-depth, as I did for Shelter.’
So who are her clients? ’I can’t tell you,’ comes the firm answer. ’I
believe that if clients want us to promote them, that they will come to
me to promote them in the right kind of magazines and papers for that
Three times I asked, three times she denied me, although in the end she
did show me a client list. But LLM’s client list is a matter of public
record, so it is difficult to understand why all of a sudden Grender is
adopting the stance of a minister receiving a grilling on Newsnight.
’She is a deeply political being. She lives and breathes politics. But
she is still new to the marketing world. Her challenge is to understand
the difference between covert and overt communications,’ suggests
Grender is smart enough to take the point.
Research and policy officer for Paddy Ashdown
Communications director, Lib Dems
Communications director, Shelter
Senior consultant, LLM Communications