PROFILE: Simon Cohen - Single-minded quest for tolerance

'Wait there,' says Simon Cohen, managing director, Global Tolerance, as he bounds up to his bedroom above his new office, the former Kiss FM studio in Finsbury Park.

Simon Cohen
Simon Cohen

He reappears grinning in a pink sequin jacket and twirls around.

Cohen's tangible enthusiasm perhaps explains why, at only 29, he has already run his own agency for three years and worked with the Dalai Lama, a living Buddha and Gandhi's grandson.

After graduating in theology, Cohen was rising up the ranks of media sales, but quickly became disillusioned. 'I was paid double my age but felt poor.

My personal and professional ethics weren't aligned,' he says. The media's demonisation of Islam following the 9/11 attacks inspired Cohen to action. With £450 left on his overdraft, he took the plunge and handed in his notice.

He set up the first national conference on religion and media by securing sponsorship from the Media Trust and The Prince's Trust, starting his own ethical communications agency in the process. Global Tolerance works solely with clients promoting positive social change. Cohen believes religious tolerance is vital.

'The most imminent threat to our planet is that someone will strap a bomb to themselves in the name of religion and start World War Three. Then it's game over,' he argues.

He believes the media are the greatest influencers of public perception. But he argues that the media should recognise this social power also gives them a responsibility, and should take the time to understand different faiths. He says words like 'Muslim terrorist', 'Islamic extremist' and 'Islamofacist' are irresponsible.

Simon Cohen'Interfaith dialogue demands a basic understanding of each other's religion, but the media should also have this understanding,' he says. It is clear that Cohen has a genuine passion for the subject and he has ambitious plans to expand the agency.

George Pitcher, The Telegraph's religion editor and curate of St Bride's, believes that Cohen is the antidote to the hypocrisy in ethical communications.

'It is unusual for someone so young to have such a strong sense of vocation and purpose. His single-mindedness is as weird as it is wonderful,' says Pitcher. 'Other consultancies have a "recycle your pants" day or whatever. He has a sharpness and commitment that is much more productive.'

Global Tolerance has never been short of interesting challenges - Christian Science's campaign to distance itself from Scientology is a case in point.

And in 2006, Cohen was hired by the 'living Buddha' Karmapa Thaye Dorje to handle media for his first visit to the UK. Thaye Dorje is one of two people who claim to be the legitimate 17th Karmapa - the fourth most important role in Buddhism.

The dispute has divided followers of the faith, but Cohen was asked to get media coverage for his client with as little mention as possible of the controversy. Cohen responded by focusing on the (then) 22-year-old man behind the Buddha label.

He set up a MySpace page and a blog, which talked about Karmapa's love of cricket and pizza to give the public insight into his life. The story gained widespread coverage 'without going for the easy controversy story' and, crucially, with very little mention of the politics.

'It is absolute rubbish to think good news doesn't sell,' rails Cohen. 'People are quick to blame the falling circulation of papers on the fragmentation of the media, but it is just easy to write that. Positive stories often sell better than negative ones.'

In November 2006, shortly after the former foreign secretary Jack Straw ignited debate over whether the Muslim veil should be banned, Cohen decided to launch his own campaign to promote global tolerance - the principle and his agency. As a basis for the campaign, he used the fact that more than 390,000 people put Jedi Knight as their religion in the 2001 census, making it the UK's fourth largest religion.

Cohen got two 'Jedi Knights', Umada and Yunyun, to deliver a letter to the United Nations Association on 16 November (the UN's International Day of Tolerance), requesting the day be marked as the Interstellar Day of Tolerance.

The Jedi Knights and Wookie Chewbacca appeared on BBC Breakfast and Sky News and the story spread like wildfire. All it cost the agency was the price of the costumes.

'We wanted to promote the idea of respecting difference where it lies. We didn't mention Islam and it wasn't in the faith pages,' says Cohen. He argues that moving religious issues into the mainstream is key to creating global tolerance. 'We need to humanise social issues so people can talk about it in the pub,' he says.

The Times' leader writer Michael Binyon holds Cohen in high regard and praises his engaging and sensitive manner. 'He is extremely thoughtful and listens to people, which is unusual. But he is not dull. He can be an impish chap at times,' he says. 'He has found a clever niche with faith and religion. It is important and increasingly political, especially on an international level.'

Indeed, the agency is not global in name alone. As well as speaking at international conferences, Cohen recently flew out to India to handle media for the Board of World Religious Leaders, where he had to media brief the Dalai Lama, and protect his pre-arranged exclusives by getting the police to remove unruly reporters.

Cohen is not religious himself - 'a bacon-butty-eating Jew' - but he is spiritual. This helps him not to have a sense of inferiority when working with such high-profile clients. 'Ultimately we're all on this planet together,' he states.

2003: Managing director, Global Tolerance
2001: Senior business development manager, Northcliffe Newspapers
2000: Planner/buyer, MBS (now Brand Connection)

What was your biggest career break?

Following my heart and handing in my notice at Northcliffe in 2003. It was a real financial struggle at first, but it was the most enriching thing I could ever have done for my life and work.

What advice would you give someone climbing the PR ladder?
Always stay true to your values and make sure the ladder you are climbing feels right for you. Promote what you really care about as much as you can - it won't feel like a climb, or like PR. The ladder's top is not a title, salary or status. Surround yourself with people who make you smile and make you feel inspired.

Who was your most notable mentor?
I never really had one. I truly value and learn from my colleagues, particularly Mike Waldron, a wonderfully wise and humble communicator. I have a profound respect for Rajmohan Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma) and Karmapa (a 24-year-old living Buddha), two of the several awesome people we work with.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
Honesty (honestly), emotional intelligence, creativity, integrity and the ability to persuade in person, in prose and on the phone. Someone who truly believes in the power of the media and PR to make a positive difference.

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