PROFILE: David Hill, a pretty straight kind of guy

‘Starting work at Downing Street is an immense shock. You can't train for it. And the first thing that hits you is that you are responsible for everything - from war to the weather.'

David Hill
David Hill

The walrus-like David Hill, Tony Blair's post-Campbell media handler, is delivering a presentation to a class of students at University of Westminster.

His speech includes the startling admission that Blair did not listen to a single edition of the Today programme from 1998 to the day he stood down. ‘And I'd bet my bottom dollar he still doesn't,' Hill adds gruffly, when we meet a few days later.

Hill, aged 60, is a straight talker who is often rev­ealing, but there are few flashes of humour in his presentation. It is not that he is dull; he is just very businesslike. Charm isn't high on his list of priorities.

The day after his speech, Hill's PA emails over the transcript. Word for word, it is exactly the same as the one he delivered on the night. Clearly, Hill is not a man who enjoys an ad-lib.
Weber Shandwick UK CEO Colin Byrne remembers working with Hill in their Labour Party days.

David Hill‘He's a good guy,' says Byrne. ‘An old-fashioned media oper­ator who believes in good relationships with journalists and professionalism in PR. I always got on very well with him.
He's old-school. He probably wouldn't know a social networking site from a building site, but is trusted and respected.'

As befits a PRO who exemplifies how not to become the story, Hill looks sup­remely uncomfortable while posing for PRWeek's photographer at the Bell Pottinger offices. We talk about the relative merits of rock bands from his home city Birmingham, and when the photographer asks if he keeps in touch with Blair, he responds with a brusque ‘of course'.

It is not surprising that he does. Unlike many of the personality-first types that characterised early New Labour, you cannot imagine Hill falling out with anyone.

He is calm and never lets emotion get in the way. In other words, he was the bottle in Blair's medicine cabinet marked ‘Alastair Campbell: Antidote'.

Hill replaced Campbell at the height of the Hutton Inquiry. ‘A difficult time, full stop,' he says. As one former political editor comments: ‘Most political journalists would probably say it was always going to be difficult for him taking over from Alastair Campbell. But some might also say, from a public perception point of view, his lower profile helped.'

One source claims Hill, who was the Lab­our Party's chief spokesperson until shor­tly after Blair came to power, was elb­owed aside by Campbell for the Downing Street role, prompting a departure for Good Relations in 1998. Hill responds, somewhat cryptically, that the story ‘doesn't ring any bells'.

It is no surprise that the Hutton report comes up as among his worst experiences at Downing Street. When the report was published, it was so uncritical of the Government that the newspapers accused Hutton of participating in an ‘establishment whitewash'.

‘If Hutton had come up with something half way [between criticising the Government and not], there would have been the most extraordinary battle with the media over getting our side of that case across. But when we read [the report] we looked at one another and said: "Am I reading this right? Have I missed something?" It was as good as we could have hoped for.

‘It meant that while Tony had to go through a lot of abuse because the media felt desperately cheated, any other outcome would have been worse.'

DLA Piper head of media Eben Black was a political correspondent at both The Sun and The Sunday Times while Hill was at the Labour Party and Number 10. Black remembers Hill as someone he would often meet wandering around the Commons on an otherwise deserted bank holiday, always with a few stories to offer.

‘I always found him to be one of the straightest, most decent spin-doctors in politics,' says Black.

Decent as he is, Hill has a tendency to speechify. A central tenet of the interview is his belief the PR world should be viewed in a more positive light, and that it is down to PROs to change this. He spends the first 20 minutes talking around the subject.

But surely his Downing Street predecessor did more than anyone else to sully the good name of PR? Hill squirms. ‘There's no doubt that Alastair became a story. But those trying to suggest he is the reason it has happened are wrong. It has been going on for much longer.'

Hill is also disconcertingly vague about his exact role at Bell Pottinger: ‘I am very much available to my colleagues to be a resource and to be a resource to clients.'

One client he names is A Common Word, a project set up by 138 Islam scholars concerned about Muslim/Christian rel­ations. The scholars sent a letter to the Pope and other Christian leaders, calling for interfaith peace. The Vatican has res­ponded by inviting the signatories for talks. ‘It's what PR is all about,' says Hill.

Another client is London 2012, in which he was involved back in his Downing Street days. Hill recalls listening to the radio with Blair while they were at the G8 Summit in 2005, waiting to hear if London had won.

A challenging client? Hill shrugs. ‘The 2012 press coverage has been similar to the run up to any Olympic Games. There are always going to be challenges.'

With a CV that includes the Bernie Ecc­lestone funding controversy, the invasion of Iraq and the Hutton Inquiry, they would appear to have the right man for the job.

2007 Director, Bell Pottinger
2003 Director of comms, Downing Street
2000 MD, Good Relations Political Comms
1998 Director, Good Relations
1991 Chief spokesperson, The Labour Party
1983 Running the office of Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
1979 Political adviser to Roy Hattersley

What was your biggest career break?
Without a doubt nothing compares with working for Tony Blair in Downing Street. That has to be the pinnacle of my career.

But that came rather late in my life to be a career break. I think it would be fair to say that my work with Roy Hattersley and the Labour Party and Bell Pottinger before doing that job were all very important in enabling me to have the experience I needed.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
I have not had a conventional career path but I am sure that it is important, as you embark on a career, to be available and helpful; to try always to be cheerful; to seek the respect as well as the good will of your colleagues and clients; to make good contacts and friends as you go along and to be someone people trust.

Who was your most notable mentor?
It is very difficult to choose. It was the many years working for Roy Hattersley that gave me the grounding I needed to do the subsequent jobs so I'm very grateful for the years I spent with him.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
I would look for a mix of application and enthusiasm and a strong sense that they felt they were doing a positive and valuable job.

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