When the former chair of the PRCA, Richard Houghton, interviewed Francis Ingham for the director-general’s role in 2007, he found Ingham “a breath of fresh air” in the PR industry.
“He was young, dynamic and had a practical plan for changing the association for the better,” remembers Houghton.
“His ambition, drive and focus became clear when arranging one of our regular meetings. He said he could only meet me for a coffee as he had two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners with members and prospective members in the diary from Monday to Thursday for the foreseeable future. Francis was doing what he did best – cajoling, selling, arm-twisting and challenging. He was building the PRCA into the world’s biggest PR association and a real force for change in the UK and internationally.”
There is certainly little doubt that Ingham, in his 16 years running the PRCA, helped transform the PR industry into a bigger and more respected sector of the national and international economy.
Ingham was born in 1975 and brought up in Manchester, where he attended St Bede’s College. It wasn’t a privileged background. He said he had never met his father and his mother died when he was still young.
But he went on to study a PPE at Oxford, where he also developed his lifelong affinity to the Conservative Party. Throughout his life Ingham always referred to it as “my party…” becoming a councillor for Enfield Council between 2002 and 2006.
Ingham entered the public relations sector with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in 2004, rising to assistant director-general and head of public affairs, which is where this writer first met him in 2006.
When he shifted to rival trade body the PRCA in 2007, Ingham made it clear that his ambition was to make it the most effective representative body for UK PR professionals. In 2013 he also took over running ICCO, the International Communications Consultancy Organisation, a global trade body for 41 PR associations operating in 70 countries.
Alison Clarke, former chairman of the PRCA and former president of the CIPR, says: “Quite simply Francis transformed the PRCA, ICCO and the PR industry. He fought causes that benefitted PR professionals. But above all he was a really nice bloke, great fun and always good company.”
Clarke recalls a recent example of Ingham’s character at the global ICCO summit late last year. “Francis was down to give the introductory address but unfortunately developed COVID-19 shortly beforehand. Despite being very poorly, he got suited and booted as usual, and delivered – via Zoom – the most brilliant speech to the delegates. For many of us this was the mark of the man. He took his responsibilities very seriously and always showed great leadership.”
Perhaps Ingham’s biggest moment in the global spotlight was in 2017, when the PRCA played a major part in the collapse of the scandal-hit Bell Pottinger consultancy – at that time one of the biggest and best-established PR agencies in the world.
Ingham took the decision, in September 2017, to expel Bell Pottinger – which had been caught using covert communications seemingly to foment racial hatred in South Africa’s febrile political battles – from the PRCA. This action was seen as the tipping point for Bell Pottinger’s collapse into administration and Ingham was quoted prominently in the Financial Times’ front page story that day.
Tony Langham, co-founder of Lansons and long-time member of the PRCA council, says: “A lot of trade body leaders are mostly talk, but Francis was mostly about action and getting things done, rather than talking about doing things. Our industry owes him a lot and will miss him."
Sarah Scholefield, current chair of PRCA, says: “Francis was deeply dedicated to the PRCA and its mission. He oversaw a period of rapid expansion for the association and built huge credibility and respect for our industry more widely. He leaves a lasting legacy in the strength and reputation of the PRCA as it stands today and will be remembered as a pivotal figure in our industry. He will be hugely missed by us all.”
Gavin Devine, who runs Park Street Partners and sits on the board of the PRCA, puts it more bluntly: “Francis took the PRCA, a bit of a backwater in 2007, by the scruff of the neck, and turned it into an incredible force. Back then I was running the MHP agency and it took a while to bond with Francis. But then I began to realise his great ability to understand you, to cultivate you – in a nice way – and our relationship evolved into a good friendship.”
Like most people in the PR industry, Devine remembers Ingham for “his bonhomie; for having lunch in front of him, gossiping, holding court”. “When he was on form he was fantastic company. He was very loyal, always available, great fun.”
As for many people in the industry, and society in general, the 2020-21 pandemic and lockdowns were tough on Ingham, and he began to talk openly for the first time about some of his mental health struggles.
As Langham says: “During COVID-19 Francis was an exemplary leader, prioritising key tasks and leading from the front, during a time that clearly didn’t suit him.”
Alex Aiken, executive director, Government Communications, says: "COVID-19 has impacted everyone. Francis led the PRCA over that period and was integral to government communication response, acting as an advisor and helping produce a report on the early lessons communicating during the pandemic. He was generous with his time and recognised the impact that the pandemic had on colleagues’ mental health."
Since then there have been some controversies surrounding the governance of the PRCA, but even those in the industry who made official complaints say privately they felt no personal animosity towards Ingham, always wanting the best for him.
Gave PR a voice
Houghton says: “Francis certainly ruffled a few feathers and in recent years his health issues got in the way, but we must remember that he pushed for higher practice standards; wider and improved evaluation; fought draconian copyright legislation in the European court; called out members who did not meet the association’s standards; and gave PR a voice where it mattered."
He adds: “I will sorely miss our friendship; our heated discussions on a huge range of topics; and his simple passion for getting things done.”
Many in the industry became aware of Ingham’s worsening health issues post-pandemic, but very few realised how serious they had become.
Aiken says: "I will miss him and I recognise that his total commitment both sets an example and is, perhaps, a warning – about how far we can push ourselves, and when we need to pause, reflect and relax a bit. But his achievements stand as a legacy and inspiration to the next generation of practitioners."
On a personal note, this writer has known and talked regularly to Francis over nearly two decades. We disagreed about many things, mainly national politics, but we also liked and respected each other on a personal level. Francis was without doubt charismatic, energetic, fun to be with, and a progressive force in the PR industry, to which both of us have dedicated the majority of our careers. He leaves a huge hole in this profession and will be greatly missed.
Francis Ingham was born 22 December 1975. He passed away on 16 March 2023, after a short illness. He is survived by four beautiful children of whom he was immensely proud.