PROFILE: Richard O'Brien, Amicus - O'Brien set to battle for issues at Amicus

Amicus comms director Richard O'Brien juggles union feats with fatherhood.

ightly cramped Islington office, Amicus communications director Richard O'Brien sits surrounded by an array of conference plan wall-charts, newspaper cuttings and pictures of his 18-month-old twin daughters.

The office aptly depicts O'Brien's present circumstances. Amicus - the UK's second largest trade union - is fighting for a decent work-life balance for its members, while its new PR chief is experiencing life as a working father first hand.

Squeezing in weekend media briefings while at home with his twins is a regular occurrence for O'Brien in balancing a hectic schedule around a family life in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

As can be expected of a campaigning union, O'Brien says Amicus is supportive of his needs as an employee and father. The union - formed at the turn of the year by the merger of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) and the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union (MSF) - has, he says, a work-life balance scheme that allows generous paternity leave and childcare support.

He has a lot of respect for his employer and has dedicated a lot of time to both the MSF and the AEEU over the last 12 years. Having previously worked as MSF head of campaigns and media relations, alongside a stint as political and media adviser at the AEEU, O'Brien was the natural choice to lead PR for the merged entity.

His priorities are three fold: to establish the Amicus brand, help see the merger through and boost membership. 'The purpose of the merger is for growth,' says O'Brien. 'If both the MSF and AEEU recruited all the people in their natural areas, we would have 3.5 million members instead of 1.2 million. We need to sell ourselves, which is a marketing job.'

Raised in Waltham Forest, O'Brien comes from a trade union background - his father worked as a convenor in the engineering union. Former AEEU press officer Charlie Whelan - later Gordon Brown's press secretary - is a friend of the O'Brien family and introduced O'Brien to his first job in union PR.

Desperate for employment after an economics degree at the University of Kent, Whelan's offer to work with him at the AEEU press office wasn't one to be refused. But communications was not his first choice. Despite the degree, a five-year stint as a distribution manager at Harrods and a career in union comms, O'Brien wanted to be an actor.

'Communications was a drift,' he admits, but says that with PR he found his calling. 'The thing I enjoy the most is delivering a story to the media.'

While he has a no-nonsense attitude to dealing with the media, O'Brien by no means fits the robust union PRO image. He is described by Tim Arnold, who has worked for O'Brien on a consultancy basis, as 'very down to earth and essentially a sensitive and thoughtful figure'.

The Press Association's industrial correspondent Alan Jones says of his long-term contact: 'He's one of the most powerful union press officers and a good operator.'

His appointment is also set to make life easier for journalists, says Jones: 'It was a bit daft having one union but two networks - I'm hoping it will be smoother with one person in charge of comms.'

O'Brien has a task overseeing communications for Amicus and its newly appointed leftwing leader Derek Simpson, who replaced Blairite Sir Ken Jackson in the leadership contest over the summer. The media has already latched onto apparent differences of opinion over Euro policy between Simpson and joint general-secretary Roger Lyons. But O'Brien takes the negative coverage in his stride and sees the formation of Amicus as an opportunity to reposition as a 'modern organisation that responds quickly to the needs of individuals'.

Amicus - which counts 100 MPs and cabinet ministers Alan Milburn and Patricia Hewitt among its members - does not intend to take a vehemently anti-government stance. This sets it apart from other unions, such as the GMB, which have directed PR and advertising efforts at government policy. 'We have a positive relationship with government,' says O'Brien.

'Taking a negative stance may get you coverage, but it doesn't get you as far in terms of influence.'

Far from pandering to government needs, Amicus wants to be seen as a powerful lobbying machine and intends to campaign aggressively on issues including pensions, equal pay and employment rights. O'Brien is anticipating he may need to boost his team - which comprises just three press officers - to cope with the demands ahead.

In the current economic climate, with redundancies commonplace and pensions being downgraded, unions such as Amicus will play more of a high-profile role. In turn, all eyes will be on O'Brien in ensuring the right messages are conveyed.


1995: Political and media adviser, AEEU

1996: National media relations officer, MSF

1999: Head of campaigns and media relations, MSF

2002: Director of comms, Amicus

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