Profile: Rachel Whetstone, Google

Rachel Whetstone is flustered: her arrival at Google has coincided with its move to swanky offices on Buckingham Palace Road. There has been little time for Michael Howard’s former chief of staff to settle in. So our interview takes place in the only spot it can – the canteen.

The eatery is devoid of people but crammed with brightly coloured chairs, refrigerated beer and games consoles. It's definitely Google. 'When I told people about the job it put a smile on their face,' says Whetstone. 'People genuinely love the company.'

Google is in a fortunate position, in that few firms are as universally admired, or respected. But as it expands, and since its flotation, some have warned it should not be complacent.

'That's the challenge,' agrees Whetstone. 'New markets have different cultures and require local people with local knowledge.'

At first, Google and Whetstone seem strange bedfellows: she professes a largely tech-free background (she  had no personal email before joining the search engine). But Google is a lifestyle product – its challenge is to be successful in emerging markets against competitors with far larger PR machines (such as Yahoo!). So a veteran of the Opposition, for which 'five people in a small office' fought against New Labour, is arguably a suitable choice.

Part of Whetstone's remit is to establish a Europe-wide comms team by the end of 2006. It will include the appointment of senior PROs in Germany, France and Spain. A team of five will soon expand to around 15.

She is understandably excited about the prospect and attends to questions intently. You could say she would make a fine politician. 'Being in opposition was very hard work,' she admits. 'Up to the last election I was working for nine months without a day off.'

Whetstone fell into PR almost by chance; heading for a career in law she missed her course due to an illness picked up in the Far East.

Political comms was a natural move because, Whetstone says, it requires a hands-on approach. In 1989, alongside David Cameron, she became one of Howard's underlings in the Conservative Research Department. Much later, after the one-time home secretary's appointment as leader of the Opposition, they formed the 'Notting Hill Set' with Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove and Nicholas Boles. Whetstone was also a key figure in the Tories' 2005 election campaign.

'We failed big time,' she admits. 'We were up against an unpopular government and only managed to secure 33 per cent of the vote. But we have professionalised the party. It's younger and more vibrant now.'

In between, Whetstone honed her PR skills as corporate comms manager at Carlton Communications (where David Cameron was head of corporate affairs) before assuming a role as director under Tim Allan at Portland PR. Allan recently tried to woo her back but Google proved too enticing.

Whetstone has backed Cameron for the leadership despite an apparent falling out between the pair, which became the subject of newspaper gossip, and which Whetstone flatly denies. Of Cameron and his policies she says: 'He is optimistic. We can't have a completely negative opposition: the country isn't broken. For example, Labour is right on licensing laws. If I want to have a drink at 2am why shouldn't I?'

Despite being a 'committed Londoner', Whetstone spends her weekends in the countryside riding her horse, Fred. She reveals with some embarrassment that her favourite musician is Rod Stewart. Lively and trim, she is also a yoga fanatic. Yes, the 42-year-old is something of a Notting Hill cliché.

When talking about her former boss, Whetstone reveals a genuine affection for Howard.'Michael is a great teacher,' she says. 'He'll listen to the opinions of even the most junior staff members.'

So why didn't Whetstone stay in politics? 'Party leader is the most lonely, horrible job,' she explains. 'And politics is tremendously hard work. It's great to have weekends to myself now, not listening to John Humphrys every day.'

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