Profile: Phil Hall, chief executive, Phil Hall Associates

He used to spend his working days hauling reporters out of jail, exposing lying ministers, taking on Richard Desmond and popping around to No 10 for cups of tea. But in late April, former News of the World editor Phil Hall started a PR agency in the hope of a less madcap working environment.

Three days into his new incarnation he found himself under a blanket, being smuggled into the Presidential Palace in Quito, Ecuador, to explain to the new president why conducting press conferences flanked by 27 armed officers was not the best way to get an administration recognised by the US government.

And so began the life of Phil Hall Associates, he explains, as he bustles around the office, offering drinks, shaking the photographer warmly by the hand and issuing cheery hellos to passing staff.

It is difficult to imagine this tall, affable 50-year-old as the ruthless tabloid editor who oversaw - among other things - the story that led to the downfall of Jeffrey Archer, the exposure of Princess Diana's meetings with Will Carling, and the sting on rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio.

But Hall's friendly and disarming manner is one of his most useful weapons.

He used it to devastating effect in 2001 when he snatched an interview with Celine Dion from under OK!'s nose three days into his new job as editor-in-chief at rival Hello!.

First he wheedled the news of the imminent deal out of a smug OK! employee at a PCC bash. Half an hour later he was in a phone box chatting to Dion's husband and manager Rene Angelil, gently asking why, if all was right with the OK! deal, Angelil had taken his call. After matching OK!'s $1m fee, stripping the contract down to a single page and agreeing to conduct the interview himself, Hall had his scoop. The issue sold nearly one million copies.

This is not Hall's first time in PR. He spent six months with Max Clifford after his five-year editorship of the NotW came to an end, a time Hall describes as a 'fantastic experience'.

Nevertheless, when ex-Sun editor Stuart Higgins, who now also runs his own PR agency, suggested he meet Hello! publisher Eduardo Sanchez Junco, Hall jumped at the chance.

'The idea of working on Hello! after a career in daily news was, frankly, scary,' he admits. 'But I need an element of risk to get excited about a job.'

'Sales had been falling for eight years,' Hall explains. 'I made the mag more news-focused, concentrating on the story, rather than just the photos.'

His time at Hello! could be the key to Hall's success in PR. While he pulled few punches digging the dirt on celebs at NotW, he was canny enough to nurture the people who would shift copies of Hello!. 'I have a reputation for playing it straight and not double-crossing people,' he asserts.

Indeed, when asked if he sees himself as a promoter or a protector, the firm answer is 'both'.

As well as talking to Clifford (now a non-executive director on Hall's board) about his plans to start an agency, Hall sounded out PR veteran Brian MacLaurin. 'I told him I thought he had the skills and contacts to do well,' says MacLaurin. 'He has the valuable asset of access to editors.'

Hall is acutely aware of the value of his services. 'People ask "how can you justify charging what you do for a five-minute chat with the editor of the Daily Mirror?" I reply they are paying for five minutes plus 30 years in the business.'

He says the turn of the year will be crunch time - does he keep his current size (six staff, with high-profile clients including Heather Mills McCartney, West Ham United and Hat Trick Productions), or take up the offers of investment and grow into a '70-strong agency with a media training arm'?

Other irons in the fire include an offer to get involved in a consortium preparing to bid for a UK football club (saying it is not his beloved West Ham is as far as Hall will be drawn), which may persuade him to stay small.

Then again, taking the easier option never got anyone in front of Celine Dion or the president of Ecuador.

CV 1992: News editor, The Sunday Express 1993: Assistant editor rising to editor (1995), News of the World 2000: Consultant, Max Clifford Associates 2001: Editor-in-chief, Hello! 2002: MD of contract publishing division, The Press Association 2003: Editorial development director, Trinity Mirror 2005: CEO, Phil Hall Associates

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