PROFILE: Alan McLaughlin, Channel 4 - Turned on, tuned in and staying focused. Why corporate publicity manager Alan McLaughlin is all fired up at Channel 4

Feeling the effects of a music awards ceremony the night before, dressed in jeans and cradling a fag, fresh-faced Alan McLaughlin could embody Channel 4's pursuit of the yoof and adultescent market.

Feeling the effects of a music awards ceremony the night before, dressed in jeans and cradling a fag, fresh-faced Alan McLaughlin could embody Channel 4's pursuit of the yoof and adultescent market.

But while doubtlessly at ease discussing South Park and the channel's late-night cult viewing, McLaughlin is at least as comfortable ensuring Channel 4's coverage of serious social and political issues impacts on the national psyche.

The day he talked to PR Week seemed to embody what his job as corporate publicity manager entails: desperate for coffee after hosting journalists at the MOBO music awards till three in the morning, McLaughlin had just come from a media screening of last night's (12 October) Despatches expose on alleged drinking by British Airways pilots.

His former boss at Tesco, where he was corporate and media relations manager, puts particular emphasis on just how acute McLaughlin's news sense is. David Sawday, Tesco's corporate affairs manager, says: 'He has many strengths but is one of the best in the business in terms of an instinctive news sense. At the core of his talents is an understanding of what journalists need to do their job.'

Agreeing that McLaughlin could have been a great journalist 'in another life', Sawday says it would be a sad day for PR if his former protege jumped the fence: 'He has so much to give the world of PR when it is hopefully making the transition from the world of gin and tonics to working with the media to ensure the views of the corporate world get proper recognition.'

McLaughlin's news skills might be instinctive but they were honed by two years at the London Ambulance Service NHS Trust during a particularly bleak period. As well as providing classic and copious crisis management experience, he agrees episodes such as the death of a young girl who waited over an hour for an ambulance puts subsequent 'crises' in perspective.

He credits that stint with broadening his political perspective, learning of the knock-on effects of what may appear the most innocent of comments.

Although he describes the Trust's communications head David Jervis as 'brilliant' and 'my first mentor', McLaughlin fears that many good professionals in public sector PR are hamstrung by their organisations' defensiveness and lack of responsiveness. He thinks it unlikely he could return to the sector.

More to his liking was the buzz and competitiveness of the communications office at Tesco at a time when supermarkets and the food industry soared up the political and news agenda. He found in Sawday a second mentor whose wish to work with the media on big issues rather than product placement matched his own agenda.

Leaving Tesco was a wrench, he says. But having arrived at Channel 4 at the height of the summer's Big Brother-mania, McLaughlin gives the impression of being like a kid given the freedom of his favourite playgound.

Sitting on the terrace of the quintessentially Channel 4 offices near Westminster, he says: 'If I had seen exactly the same job advertisement with a BBC logo at the top I wouldn't have applied. There was no overwhelming desire to work in broadcasting but after three-and-a-half years at Tesco I was thinking that I really ought to move, but I loved it there. I was asking what sort of place could be as good fun and as exciting and be all about my life? That's the brand at Channel 4. It is a fantastic brand that I grew up with. I have watched it since day one which is perhaps a sign of a misspent youth.'

His enthusiasm for the channel shines through the fog of the previous late night. Accusations that the channel is losing its cutting edge by showing mainstream American sitcoms are wafted away. So too are complaints at the other end of the spectrum about the channel's continuing willingness to risk the wrath of Tory MPs and the Daily Mail with some of its post-Watershed experiments.

'The channel does not go out of its way deliberately to shock, but what it does, and this is why I have always been an avid C4 fan, is address issues which other channels might steer clear of and those can sometimes be quite shocking.'

Although the Mail's moralistic artillery has been re-targeted on Channel 5 since Keith Chegwin's ill-advised naked game show, McLaughlin has plenty to keep him busy as his remit goes well beyond dealing with the smut police. His brief is principally to lead on issues which could have a corporate impact.

'I will span all the different areas, anything from 'how offensive is South Park?' to someone asking if the Big Breakfast is finished through to the Despatches stuff.'

That's McLaughlin for you. Jon Snow. Nasty Nick. Cartman. Richie Benaud. He's at home with any of them - and enthusiastic about each and every one.

HIGHLIGHTS

1995 Senior press and public affairs officer, London Ambulance Service NHS Trust

1997 Corporate and media relations manager, Tesco

2000 Corporate publicity manager, Channel 4.



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