PROFILE: John McNamara, Nuclear's amiable advocate

Adjacent to the PRWeek office there is a newsagent selling candy sticks featuring comic book superheroes on the packaging. Nearly half of said superheroes acquired their fantastic mutations through some sort of nuclear accident.

John McNamara
John McNamara

Meanwhile, one of the most popular shows in the history of television follows the eponymous Simpson family. The fat­her, Homer, works in a nuclear plant saturated in radioactive waste, causing the local aquatic life to possess an extra eye.

‘You have got to laugh,' says John McNa­mara, spokesman for the British nuc­lear industry. ‘There is no point in trying to com­bat the cartoon image of nuclear power.'

But, for the first time since a 2003 government White Paper effectively condemned it to the margins, nuclear is back in vogue. Gordon Brown has given the green light to a new wave of power stations, while some green campaigners are heralding it as a carbon-friendly alternative to oil, gas and coal. Even Sir Bob Geldof has said nuc­lear power could help light up Africa.

McNamara is the loquacious head of media and PR for the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), the body for British nuclear interests. At the entrance to his off­ice sits a small statue of Homer Simpson - a reminder of what the NIA is up against.

He is intensely knowledgeable about the nuclear industry, as passionate about it as you would expect a man in his position to be, and accepting that there are some battles that just cannot be won.

‘For members of Greenpeace, for example, opposition to nuclear energy is an article of faith - you cannot win,' the 46-year-old argues. ‘We set out to change the perception of the industry by moving away from its embattled image and inviting people inside.'

Which is exactly what the NIA did. In 2006 BBC Radio 5 Live hosted a Drivetime programme from inside East Anglian nuc­lear power station Sizewell B - a first for the industry. More and more frequently news reports about nuclear power stations are coming from inside the buildings themselves.

The industry has managed to make political hay while the sun is shining, in addressing where energy will come from in ten years' time, now that natural fuel reserves are running low.

‘Five years ago we were nowhere,' admits McNamara. ‘There was a culture of saying nothing in the industry, so the first job was changing that. Then it was about beginning to talk in the right way.'

Much of the talking ‘in the right way' was conducted through the media, and co-ordinated by McNamara himself.

‘There is a perception that we have millions of pounds to spend on PR and that it is unfair of us to put that might up against the plucky green campaigners,' he laments. ‘But the truth is there are maybe four people working full-time on nuclear PR in this country.'

Misconceptions about the industry are McNamara's main problem.

‘People go to university and they get an image of nuclear power that is unfavourable, but that is natural and I was the same,' he says. ‘It is our job to soberly explain what the truth really is.'

McNamara learned about nuclear power as a reporter and editor of the Anglia Advertiser, covering developments at Sizewell B. It was there he began to und­erstand what he describes as ‘the truth'- that nuclear power is safe, clean and efficient. And he is full of facts to back it up.

‘If you stand next to Sizewell B you will encounter less radiation than if you were standing in the middle of the Cornish countryside, where natural background radiation is the highest in the country,' he claims.

But despite the success of the nuclear lobby in recent years, McNamara accepts that his message has not always had complete cut-through.

‘The live interviews I am fine with. [Jeremy] Paxman and [John] Humphrys are tough but fair,' he says. ‘But when you record something and it gets edited and made part of something bigger, then you can find your message gets lost against the editorial agenda.'

Despite this issue, those in the media that have worked with McNamara retain a genuine affection for him. It is easy to see why - he is jolly and personable.

‘John is always very generous in terms of telling me who to contact, good or bad, to help my story,' reveals Mail on Sunday City journalist Tom McGhie. ‘He is obviously coming with his own agenda, but he is charming and helpful.'

Dotted around the wall of the conference room in which we sit are collections of stamps, depicting great leaps forward in nuclear technology around the world. There are certificates too, but McNamara argues the industry needs to break away from its history.

‘Inside the nuclear industry there was always certainty that what the people inv­olved were doing was "a good thing",' he says. ‘Outside the industry the perception was the opposite.

We made the ins­ide show the outside what it was really up to - and convincing it to do so was tough in itself. Now the outside seems to accept that ours is not an evil industry, and nuclear power does not mean the end of the world.'

Quite the opposite in fact, as nuclear power stations are soon to be a perm­a-nent fixture on the British landscape, thanks to the Prime Minister's recent ruling. And they are likely to do so
without causing any major genetic mutations. The rules of engagement have changed, but the battle is far from over.

2006 Head of media and PR, Nuclear Industry Association
2003 Head of media and PR, British Energy
2001 Assistant chief press officer, British Energy
1997 Regional press officer (South East), British Energy
1994 Group editor, Anglia Advertiser
1988 Trainee reporter, Anglia Advertiser

What was your biggest career break?
My move into journalism. I wrote a letter to the editor of my local paper challenging a story it wrote. It did not get printed, of course. But the editor phoned me to see if I could do better. I said ‘yes', and sent some stuff in. He gave me a six-month trial.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Be yourself, but be aware there are limits. People want personality and guts, but they also want a commitment to their codes and values. If you can do that without going over the top, then people will respect you. And for god's sake have a laugh - it is networking gold dust - but it is often the bit people forget.

Who was your most notable mentor?
My first editor, George Frew. He wrote like an angel and packed several lives into his 49 years.
In PR it is Jon Stonborough. He told me: ‘When you enter a television studio you lose all basic human rights. The host views you as a bloodied piece of meat. They can cut you up anyway they choose.' He knows his stuff.

What do you prize in new recruits?
Character, flexibility and determination. I like that twinkle in the eye that says ‘I can do better than you'. Be good on computers too so you can run rings round the duffers like me.

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