A few minutes into PRWeek’s interview with the Visit London comms director, it emerges that Kelling is recognisable because he is ubiquitous. He admits to cropping up regularly as a TV pundit on topics as diverse as London sporting events and the India Now festival, both of which come under his auspices at London’s official visitor organisation. A quick Google search of his name yields 114,000 results, with his likeness, byline or comments appearing in media outlets from the BBC to the Washington Post.
As the city gears up for the 2012 Olympics, expect to see more of this soft-spoken Welshman. The 44-year-old and his team of eight will play a major part in promoting both London and the UK in advance of the games.
Kelling is about to take his show on the road, selling the capital as a tourist destination to emerging markets including India and China. Next month, he and a delegation from the Mayor’s office will be opening Visit London branches in Delhi and Mumbai.
‘It’s not just about 2012,’ Kelling says. ‘From next year, after the Beijing games, when the spotlight moves to London, we are imagining an awful lot of international press interest. We are starting to get our messages out now.’
It seems, however, that part of Kelling’s role is to convince Londoners themselves that the city will be able to cope with the expected influx of tourists in the run-up to the Olympics. On the morning of PRWeek’s visit, Kelling has appeared on BBC Breakfast defending the capital’s hotels against detractors who claim they are not up to scratch.
‘The media does lapse into the Basil Fawlty stereotype of accommodation,’ he says, getting ever so slightly exercised. ‘Come on guys. London has moved up a gear across the board over the past few years. As with a lot of these things, it starts out with a negative. Now there is a feeling of momentum, a feeling of everything coming together.’
When defending his beloved London, his ‘spiritual home’ of 22 years, Kelling is faultlessly on-message. He claims to spend his weekends practising what he preaches, attending all the festivals Visit London organises and stopping by the exhibitions it sponsors.
‘I like getting involved,’ he says. ‘I went to the Thames Festival. I go to films and cultural offerings. I like to do the stuff I talk about.’ He describes his own neighbourhood, Elephant and Castle, as ‘a delightful and up-and-coming area’, which might seem a stretch to some despite plans for extensive regeneration. He even purports to miss the London Underground during his business trips abroad, claiming to enjoy taking the tube. ‘The media likes to complain and put the boot in,’ he says animatedly. ‘We have a phenomenally comprehensive transport system. You try getting a night bus in New Zealand.’
Kelling has faced his fair share of criticism during his time at Visit London, most notably for a PR stunt he orchestrated during a promotional visit to the US last year. Under his guidance, Visit London staged a live theatrical commercial, a three-minute mini-play, before a Broadway production of Stomp. The ad wasn’t exactly a hit, and prompted a negative review in the New York Times.
According to Freud Communications deputy MD Rebecca Hirst, who has worked with Kelling since he started at Visit London in 2004, he dealt with the backlash admirably. ‘He’s always been calm and collected, even when we’ve worked on some pretty challenging campaigns,’ she says. ‘Those made of weaker stuff may have buckled under the pressure.’ She adds that, unlike some PROs, Kelling is willing to ‘get his hands dirty’.
‘I’m convinced that, in the run-up to the theatre commercial, he would’ve stepped in should one of the actors have dropped out. He really mucks in.’
Joanna Manning-Cooper, head of PR and media for London 2012, concurs. ‘Ken is excellent under pressure,’ she says. ‘He has a way of diffusing a situation with his laid back personality and laconic, dry sense of humour, but he’s not a clown. He’s very astute. He’s good at taking the temperature of a situation and keeping a calm head when no-one else can.’ She adds that Kelling’s generosity serves him well during long LOCOG meetings. ‘Whenever we’re due to meet him, he comes laden with cream and chocolate cakes, which is wonderful.’
While Kelling has spent the better part of 20 years in various in-house comms roles, his career path was not always clear. He happily recalls a stint as the drummer and backing vocalist for the late 1980s band The Keatons. Kelling and his bandmates gigged with Britpop heroes Blur back when they were still going by the name of Seymour.
‘We were thrown off their tour for being too anarchic!’ Kelling recalls. His former Keatons bandmate Rhodri Marsden is a keyboardist in Welsh post-punk band Scritti Politti. One gets the impression that Kelling doesn’t miss those days on the road, but he still admits to ‘the occasional karaoke sessions at Lucky Voice’.
Kelling’s old bandmates still keep biogs on their website. The last entry, dated earlier this year, reveals one member is now a truck driver. Kelling, however, ‘was last seen on television, extolling the virtues of visiting London on your holidays’.
PRWeek: What was your biggest career break?
Ken Kelling: After a long time in political lobbying and campaigning, I decided to merge a personal interest in the arts with a career. I was lucky enough to find people believing in ‘transferable skills’. It has led to more involvement in consumer marketing, PR and corporate comms.
PRWeek: What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
KK: You have to have personal interest and passion in what you do in your working life. Satisfaction with simply doing a job, being paid and going home is rare. You can make a big difference in any interview or job application by demonstrating detailed knowledge and interest in what the organisation does, its strategy and what you think might be its preoccupations.
PRWeek: Who was your most notable mentor?
KK: It’s always difficult to pick out any one person, but everyone I met at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was inspiring – an amazing place, built on an idea, a vision and belief in what could be achieved.
PRWeek: What characteristics do you prize most in new recruits?
KK: It may be a cliché but there is nothing better than genuine enthusiasm. This, common sense, initiative and the ability to take responsibility are far more important than any qualifications.
Comms director, Visit London
Marketing and comms director, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
Senior press officer, English Tourism Council
Press and promotions manager, London Transport Museum
Parliamentary and campaigns manager, Carers Association