VIEW FROM THE TOP: Maximum exposure for celebrity - Phil Hall talks to Maja Pawinska about his journey from the News of the World to Max Clifford to Hello!

A year ago Phil Hall might have been considering running a story in the News of the World dishing the dirt on a big celebrity. Six months ago he might have been on the other side of the fence, pitching a story about said celebrity to the tabloids.

A year ago Phil Hall might have been considering running a story in the News of the World dishing the dirt on a big celebrity. Six months ago he might have been on the other side of the fence, pitching a story about said celebrity to the tabloids.

Now, in his latest incarnation as Hello! editor-in-chief, he probably has that same celeb on his front cover, inviting us into their lovely home.

From editor of NoW to a consultant for arch-publicist Max Clifford and now to celebrity glossy, it's been a rollercoaster few months for Hall, not least as his wife gave birth to their second child in January.

He sees the hot seat at Hello! as a challenge, and it is - according to the latest ABC figures, Richard Desmond's arch-rival OK! is continuing to push its margin as market leader in the celebrity magazine sector, and Hello! is lagging behind OK!'s sales of 586,000 by around 80,000 copies.

But before we get down to discussing his plans for the magazine, which even a few issues into his leadership is starting to feel his touch, what we all want to know is, what was it like working for uber-publicist Max Clifford?

Crossing from journalism to public relations - 'the other side' - always raises eyebrows among hacks, but his brief sojourn with Clifford seems to have made sense for Hall, even with his pedigree. He and Clifford often worked closely together on stories for the newspaper, and he understands what editors want from a story.

There were rumours that Hall was bored with the pace at Max Clifford Associates after the frenzy of a tabloid, but he says the opposite is true: 'I wasn't bored working with Max - I loved every second of it. We got 15 scoops in six months I was there and innumerable spreaders across the spectrum - not just the tabloids.

'I was working for Max in the mornings and Al Fayed (on Punch magazine) in the afternoons - there was so much stuff to do. If the Hello! job hadn't come up, I think I would have stayed there for a long time.'

Hall says those months were valuable, and funnily enough they also underlined one of his strengths as an editor. He seems to take great pride in doing things the right way, with grace and manners, and he says the experience of not having his calls returned by editors confirmed that he's pretty good at that sort of thing.

Working with Clifford was also a lesson because 'he doesn't lose his temper very often - he's urbane and pragmatic. I may have been cheated and let down, but Max doesn't worry, since he has such a huge bank of stories. If he is treated badly he just won't go back.'

His spell as a publicist also encouraged him to think about the relationship between press and PR: 'PR people and journalists totally need each other.

When I was with Max I talked to a couple of cub reporters and they turned their noses up at PR - but if they had listened they may have got a story for nothing.

It's a back-scratching exercise, and it's about helping not hindering each other. PR isn't about bullshit, or not telling the truth. There is that arrogance on the part of journalists.'

So what does Clifford think of Hall's attempts at being a PR man? The two had built up a close working relationship while Hall was at the NoW, and it's clear that Clifford has a great deal of respect for him.

'He's one of the journalists that I rate very highly, and I knew he'd be a great asset because we get on so well,' says Clifford. 'When the News of the World job ended I was staging a big charity golf championship in Spain. Phil and his family came down and during the week I made it clear that he was very welcome to join me. It turned out very well - he obviously has a good grasp of newspapers and what makes them tick, and it was a very natural relationship.'

Clifford thinks that Hall is more suited to journalism, though, and he says Hello! is one of the few things that would have tempted him. 'It's gentler and more suited to Phil's personality than some of the other things he was offered - he'd rather be writing nice things about people That's not a weakness - it's a strength. It's a special and rare thing in a hard, competitive business but Phil Hall can still be tough.

Most senior journalists are cynics, but Phil is one of the few friends I've made in the national press in 40 years.'

No doubt Clifford's pleased as punch that his close friend is running a magazine that's so suited to his own line of work - the two are continuing to work together.

'I've had a very good working relationship with OK! and found Hello! to be a total shambles - now I'll be dealing with Phil all the time. In the six months he was with me he made a lot of contacts, including some of the managers of major stars, and that's already paying off.'

So what could possibly have tempted Hall away? He seems unsure himself: 'This job was totally out of the blue, and it intrigued me.

I met Eduardo (Sanchez, Hello!'s Spanish owner) and we completely agreed on ideas about the magazine - upmarket with proper stories and proper writers. It was an easy decision to make.'

Hall believes that Hello! is a sleeping giant with immense potential: 'There's a whole new dynamic in the market, with Hello!, OK! and Tatler competing for the same stuff. I've always been competitive.'

He adds, however, that there is a real need to rebuild the relationship the magazine has with its content suppliers: 'Hello! has lost its place in the market. PROs and freelances don't feel kindly towards it, because their calls weren't being returned. I have an ethos of calling everyone back myself, trying to repair wounds.'

Hall warns, however, that PR people should not expect to take Hello!

for a ride under his leadership: 'I think PR is starting to bite the hand that feeds it. PROs are coming to us saying they'd love us to promote this charity or ball or whatever, and then they ask what we will pay for the story. Sponsors of events need a media profile, but the PROs are asking for astronomical sums of money for people who are not at the peak of their careers. Their clients need the profile and we can give them the best profile on a glossy platform.

'It's a dangerous situation if they keep demanding huge payouts - it's crazy. There is a perception that we are a bottomless pit, but it's not about paying for wedding pictures, it's about the value of the publicity that those pictures will bring to the magazine. PROs have to be sensible,' he says.

Hall has very strong ideas about how he wants to reinforce the Hello! brand through his editorial policy. It's a tricky balance between keeping it upmarket, but also making it sexy and a must-read. There are likely to be fewer minor European royals between its covers, and more big, newsy stars.

'It's a distinct brand and 80 per cent of our readers are ABs. It's about presentation, but it's a difficult line. We're not going down the Corrie route. It's about people with class, style, who are attractive. The ideal person for Hello! now is a celebrity, who is good-looking, has style, and who is topical. It has to have the hook, and be about what people are talking about in wine bars and restaurants and at dinner tables.

'We want to do sharper fashion, not haute couture all the time. I want to do Jimmy Choo shoes and Lulu Guinness handbags and Earl jeans. It's what the celebs are wearing, and it's more relevant to people.'

One of the first things Hall did was create an 'in and out' list of celebrities to act as a guide to the ideal Hello! profile: 'If you look at EastEnders, Martin Kemp has real style but Adam Woodyatt wouldn't be in Hello!. It's about understanding the Hello! Factor. We've got to get the Grade A, first division celebs.

I've been inundated with e-mails from freelances suggesting stories about people who I just don't care about - we don't want the brother of someone who was famous years ago.'

Hall says the magazine is also becoming more proactive: 'We used to wait for stuff to come in because of our brand. Now we have a news conference every morning and we target people.'

He has big plans for the magazine - he's spending money and has been given a free hand by Sanchez.

He plans to expand the magazine by 30 to 40 per cent from next month, and is busy signing additions to the editorial team. Getting Castaway's Ben Fogle, the photogenic ex-Tatler picture editor, on board to cover adventure holidays all over the world was his first coup, and Penny Alexander, Rod Stewart's girlfriend, is doing celebrity photography.

Hall also now has a much-needed deputy, Roger Kasper, who has been OK! deputy editor and also worked on the Sunday Mirror.

Despite being ousted from NoW in favour of Rebekah Wade last spring, Hall claims to feel no animosity towards the paper. Ironically though, given his current job, he doesn't seem too impressed by the paper's new direction.

'We made huge gains in market share and won awards. For the first time everyone was talking about the paper and I left it in very good shape. It's a new era now - Rebekah is going down the celebrity route and I preferred the news route,' he says.

2001 is set to be an even more eventful year for Hall than last year. He's looks comfortable in the editor's chair, and if he can keep up his enthusiasm for the project there's no reason why he shouldn't get the circulation of the magazine back on track over the next few months.

PHIL HALL - Hello!

1992-1993 - News editor, The Sunday Express

1993-2000 - Assistant editor rising to editor, News of the World

2000-2001 - Consultant, Max Clifford Associates

2001 - Editor-in-chief, Hello!

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