'You probably couldn't get away with that now' - Neil Hedges on PR in the 2000s

The fourth in a series of interviews marking 50 years of UK PR, PRWeek talks to Neil Hedges about PR in the 2000s.

As the industry matured and agencies became emboldened in their work, this was a decade of big government spending on large-scale public campaigns... until that all stopped with a (credit) crunch.

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As millions of people were transfixed by the terrible television images of the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, one Labour aide described it as "a good day to bury bad news".

Jo Moore worked for Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions at the time, and was widely condemned for showing spin at its worst when her email was leaked.

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For some, the comment characterised a decade of spin under New Labour and Tony Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell.

Neil Hedges, then chairman of PR agency Fishburn Hedges, says the political landscape offered many opportunities, because the government was spending a lot of money on big public campaigns.

"It was the Tony Blair government that was really good for the agency’s growth."

Now a partner at Headland, Hedges co-founded Fishburn Hedges (FH) with Dale Fishburn in 1991 with the aim of creating a firm "skilled in corporate, public affairs and financial – although we didn’t quite crack the latter… However, we got more than a proportionate share of public contracts."

Hedges remembers most of the government comms work stopping quite abruptly when the David Cameron-led coalition government came to power in 2010. "Maybe that was the right call – it might have got to the stage where there was excessive spending on government campaigns."

Becoming bolder

In 1996, FH, which had a turnover of about £20m at its peak, sold to advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers, owned by the marcomms holding company Omnicom. "When you sell, many just take their money and move on, but I wanted to stay."

The industry M&A environment was very different at the time of FH’s sale, and for the subsequent decade or so. Back then, most mergers and acquisitions were deals between the big communications and marketing groups, whereas today, Hedges says, your agency is more likely to get bought by a big private equity firm or a global trade buyer.

"It’s almost too early to tell how this will play out," he says. "It means the industry has more access to capital, but with a buyer that may be more interested in the financial return than, say, expanding an agency’s offering. But of course, this will be clear to both sides before any deal is made."

Flicking through some old photos of his former agency, Hedges suggests the industry had become bolder in the decade before the financial crash.

His team beamed the agency’s name on to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square as they were moving office. "It probably demonstrated the attitude and confidence we felt in the industry at that time," he says, adding with a laugh: "You probably couldn’t get away with that now."

Hedges says the PR surrounding the introduction of the London Congestion Charge was among the campaigns he was most proud of in that decade.

In 2001, Transport for London was paying FH £100,000 a month to advise Mayor of London Ken Livingstone on the strategy.

"At the time there was huge objection to it, says Hedges. "It was really the brainchild of Livingstone, but he wasn’t that well-liked by the Evening Standard at the time, so the overall comms strategy was key to winning public support."

The agency also helped with the campaign to ban smoking in public areas that came into force in England in July 2007. During the campaign the agency contacted all the TV and radio soaps’ production companies to help promote smoke-free as the norm. EastEnders and -Coronation Street were among the programmes that subsequently incorporated the issue into their storylines.

The decade ended with the financial crash. This was a double-edged sword for PR firms because, as with Brexit today, the resulting uncertainty meant there was greater demand for comms advice. "There were fewer contracts, but it did require banks and business seeking advice on communicating with the customers," says Hedges.

At the height of the crisis, up to 50 business were closing each day, causing UK unemployment to hit its highest level in 16 years.

"It was similar to the dotcom bubble earlier in the decade," he recalls – in that, because his firm had "got into tech and finance quite late… we weren’t that affected".

Hedges thinks the quality of pitching has improved a lot over the past two decades as the industry has matured, and the quality of briefs has improved. He still likes to get involved in pitching.

"Only if I’m really needed and going to be involved with the client," he stresses. "It’s not about just bringing senior people in before handing the account on to a junior person, as used to be the case – clients are in tune and can see through that."

Social rocks the PR world

Hedges has witnessed social media become an integral part of agency work, a process that was already under way by the time the decade drew to a close. "Social media and the internet have had a huge impact on the industry, when you consider how social media can produce a crisis compared to 20 years ago," he says.

"I also think it’s had a profound impact on how agencies are structured and the level of true professional democracy, as some mandates that are social-media-focused could see someone half my age doing work with a much higher charge-out rate than me."

Hedges adds: "Traditionally there’s always been a link between a person’s experience and the rate they charge; that’s changed, and I think that’s a wonderful development."

He says this has meant being on call 24/7, but not in a way he thought was being abused by clients. "We used to send a contact report of a meeting in the post, and if the agency didn’t deliver on time we used to blame the postman," he laughs.

By the time the decade came to an end, Hedges was ready to take some time out – he eventually stepped down from his role as chairman of FH in 2011, with several months’ gardening leave before he went on to join Headland the following year.

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"Things changed after the financial crisis, and I’m sure that was the case for a lot of the agencies owned by big marketing services groups," he says. "It meant a whole new world, more restraint on spending and less autonomy. I think the legacy of that lives on, and we’re still learning lessons from it."

Despite this – or maybe partly because of it – Hedges believes the overall standard of the PR industry improved markedly between the first and second decades of this century.

"It is much more confident industry," he says. "But there has always been an obsession for the industry to be seen as a true profession.

"In the end, you get reward and recognition from the way you operate, and I think lots of PR professionals have risen to that."

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