PROFILE: Paul Charles, Eurostar - Media-savvy Charles has eye on consumer

Eurostar comms director Paul Charles aims to make the firm a fun brand

Only six weeks into his job as the new director of communications for cross-channel rail operator Eurostar, Paul Charles was overseeing the firm's best PR opportunity since its creation - breaking the UK rail speed record.

Charles speaks proudly when referring to the story's blanket print and broadcast coverage, and, undoubtedly, this is a refreshing change for a company used to receiving a hammering from the media. A prime example of which came in February this year, when 600 Eurostar passengers were rescued from a broken-down train after being forced to smash windows for ventilation when they were stranded for five hours.

Now, 13 weeks into the role, Charles faces another high-profile PR opportunity.

Next week, he will be managing press and media for Tony Blair's opening of the first section of the £5.2bn Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

'It's a really steep learning curve and I haven't really had time to get up to speed', says the affable Charles, who is quick to add 'excuse the pun'.

His current role is a long way from where his career began when, aged 17, he made tea on Saturdays for Simon Mayo at Radio Nottingham. This led to him presenting the first-ever financial slot on the station, while he was still at school and before he embarked on his degree.

The experience definitely gave him 'the bug' for the media, as he describes it, and during his three years at university he rose from his bed at 4.30am - an hour regarded as ungodly by most working people, let alone students - to present a sports slot on the BBC GMR breakfast show.

After graduating he worked as a BBC staffer in 1994, and after a few years as a freelance journalist had roles on, among others, Radio 4's Today programme and BBC Breakfast News. Looking back to that time, he still finds the lack of appreciation among PR people of a journalist's job 'terrible'.

His first job in PR was as editor-in-chief of online insurance website Screentrade, owned and run by US software giant Misys.

Screentrade.com eventually closed down but Charles stayed with Misys.

He was made head of communications for Misys Group - a role which gave him the opportunity, 'in a very young and dynamic environment', to fulfil his ambition of advising a CEO - Misys chairman Kevin Lomax - and to become a company spokesperson.

'I owe a lot to the BBC... for teaching me about business, because that decade - 1990 to 2000 - brought me into contact with CEOs and chairmen every day, and that's where I probably learned most - from interacting with chief executives and prime ministers from around the world.' says Charles.

His former BBC colleague Marcia Hughes, now a BBC Breakfast reporter, says one of his strongest qualities is his ability to lead a team.

'We used to work a lot on the road and that can be very tiring, but Paul is very positive and able to buoy up morale. It comes across in the way he communicates,' she says.

Another former colleague, esure head of external communications Adrian Webb, who worked with Charles when he was at Screentrade, says he has a strong eye for a story, particularly with a consumer angle.

Webb, who worked at Consolidated Communications on the Misys account, says: 'At Misys, which is not a big consumer-facing company, I don't think the job gave him the opportunity to use his full potential. He's a real consumer PR man with an acute sense of a story.'

This image of a consumer-focused PRO seems to fit with Charles's plans to make Eurostar a fun brand that is popular and familiar with consumers.

He says: 'The real challenge is to bring back its sense of style.' However, Charles does acknowledge that before this ambitious drive can start, the company needs to address the specifics of its negative image. In particular, 'to remove the misperception that we're expensive,' he adds.

He sees the firm's competitors as the low-cost airlines and intends to use a planned 20-minute cut in journey time as a marketing weapon against the airlines, which, he points out, 'can't speed up the journey'.

Speaking about the state of the UK rail industry PR, he states: 'It's getting better, but in my personal view, the reason why the British rail industry gets criticised so much is because in PR terms I don't believe it is as proactive as it should be.'

Charles may see himself as part of a community of rail operators fighting negative perceptions but, as almost any commuter will testify, it will be a long time before any other rail PRO has the luxury of a UK speed record to fall back on.

HIGHLIGHTS

1990: News reporter, BBC

2000: Editor-in-chief, Screentrade

2001: Head of communications, Misys Group

2003: director of communications, Eurostar

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