Profile: Tony McGarahan, independent PR adviser

Tony McGarahan tells Alec Mattinson how a decade of troubleshooting in the tough world of City PR has not diminished his sense of decency.

Troubleshooter: McGarahan has built a reputation for dealing with corporate comms crises
Troubleshooter: McGarahan has built a reputation for dealing with corporate comms crises

Tony McGarahan has fought through more corporate crises than most PR professionals have had expensed lunches.

Described as one of the City's top PR troubleshooters and corporate comms' resident street fighter, it is his easy, knock-about informality that is most immediately apparent.

A good 20 minutes have passed in conversation with him before the dictaphone’s record button any semblance of an interview starts. But that likable affability goes hand in hand with a tough streak a mile wide that has enabled him to push through corporate and private crises.

He has been a freelance consultant for the best part of a decade, parachuted into high profile corporate events such as Bradford & Bingley's nationalisation and the rescues and restructurings of Equitable Life and Birmingham Midshires.

His latest role is heading comms for the investors behind Les Bordes, Europe's largest single property development, an appointment announced this February. The venture is based around one of Europe's most prestigious golf courses in the Loire Valley, with membership an eyebrow-raising EUR1m a pop. 'A rather special project,' says McGarahan, who wants to create a luxury brand to rank alongside Bentley, Aston Martin and Ritz Carlton Hotels.

The estate has already turned down some of the world’s most high profile celebs and sportsman, wary that any short-term publicity boost is outweighed by the negative associations for the brand.

It is a far cry from the financial services brands where McGarahan firmly established his reputation. He has flirted with agency life, but his real calling is seeing a business from the inside. 'I don't like a steady state,' he admits. 'I've always enjoyed managing controlled chaos.'

As an ex-journalist, he is a dyed-in-the wool media relations man - to the extent that he drops into a conspiratorial whisper when he goes off the record. It is a skill he is concerned some in the industry have not prioritised and he rails against the myriad of press releases that 'have no news value and are just puffery'.

'Tony calls a spade a spade,' says Jeff Prestridge, money editor at the Financial Mail on Sunday. 'We've had our arguments, but he's never misled me. He has a real nose for a story and an understanding of what journalists need. If Tony rings, I'll respond. I can't say that of all the PRs in the City.'

Over the past couple of years McGarahan has audited and restructured comms at waste management firm Shanks and electronic products firm company Electrocomponents. But few assignments could be more chaotic than being thrust into the very centre of the credit crunch, when he assumed interim control of Bradford & Bingley’s comms as it hurtled towards the abyss in 2008.

Brought in by new chief exec Richard Pym in the wake of a botched rights issue in 2008, McGarahan had to rebuild damaged relationships with the City media sharpening their pens about the next Northern Rock.

He explains how a phone call on a Friday night in September from BBC business editor Robert Peston saying he was writing a story about B&B's nationalisation led to a 'chaotic beyond belief' weekend of calls with the board, the Bank of England, the FSA, media, shareholders, customers and even an angry David Cameron, upset that the Conservative Party conference was being usurped in the headlines.

Tragically, that same weekend McGarahan's brother, Frank, who worked for Barclays Wealth, was injured in an assault in Norwich that was to prove fatal.

'On the morning Frank passed away, Alastair Darling announced the nationalisation,' he explains. 'I'm in the PR game and know how the media work and that we had to prepare for the onslaught. I don't know how other families cope.'

McGarahan is a great defender of the journalistic profession, but his family's tragedy revealed to him another side to the British media. He talks candidly of offers of money being shoved through the letter box to Frank's widow. 'Some of the depths to which the mid-market tabloids went to get an angle were reprehensible,' he says.

He is keen to stress how supportive Barclays and its senior executives were throughout the period. The bank also supported the establishment of an NSPCC tribute fund in Frank's name, still taking contributions and in excess of £150k.

This respect is an insight into what appears to be a key watchword for McGarahan - loyalty. Those who have crossed him are likely to know about it and those to whom he owes loyalty will be repaid in spades.

It is an attitude ingrained during his Brixton upbringing from an 'incredibly loving' family of six children. 'I think I've got a set of values founded on doing the right thing,' he says. He has three teenage children himself now, so much of his free time is taken up by being 'a very active taxi driver'.

His other passion, and one he keeps enthusiastically returning to in conversation to, is Arsenal Football Club – a lifelong devotion borne from the TV coverage of the 1971 FA Cup final and Charlie George’s famous winner. The sport has also proved to be fertile business ground for him after leading PR for this year’s takeover of Charlton Athletic, although you sense these new ‘split loyalties’ are still not overly split.

At the end of an interview that has dragged on way past its allotted time, McGarahan is as enthusiastic, open and interesting as during the first exchanges. A supremely talented corporate and media operator, he is also one of the good guys.

CV

2002: Independent PR adviser
2000: Group director of corporate relations and brand, Taylor Woodrow
1999: Director of corporate relations, AMP UK
1991: Director of corporate comms, Birmingham Midshires Building Society
1989: Director, Paragon Communications
1988: PR manager, Mecca Leisure
1985: Press officer, Legal & General

TONY MCGARAHAN'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Firstly, bumping into the late, great Gordon Macdonald, chief of PR at Legal & General, who gave me my first role in corporate PR. He was a PR genius and taught me about media relations. Secondly, meeting Birmingham Midshires' Mike Jackson, who entrusted me, aged 27, with heading-up a PR operation for what was, at the time we joined, a building society at death's door. He educated me about change management, customer service and turning round a business.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

My dad was a man's man, looked up to for his calm authority, counsel and charm. Mike Jackson taught me about the 'customer' and Vanni Treves, chairman of Equitable, about the need for wit in a crisis.

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

Set yourself BHAGs - 'Big Hairy Audacious Goals'. Know where you want to be and how you will get there. Never be afraid to walk down new roads. Enjoy the climb.

- Qualities you prize in new recruits?

Energy, passion, curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, common sense and the ability to have a good laugh.

To tell PRWeek about your career turning point, go to http://tiny.cc/B67GB

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