Patricia Yates is posing against a boardroom window in VisitBritain’s west London offices, looking particularly uncomfortable. ‘I don’t like having photos of myself taken,’ she admits.
This is surprising, especially when this seemingly bulletproof woman adds that she ‘hates public speaking’.
And yet, place her in front of a TV camera, radio microphone or press conference and she is in her element – a skill that came into its own on 7 July 2005.
‘Just after it was announced that London had won the Olympics bid, I got stuck on the tube. I remember someone said: How are we going to run the Olympics if we can’t even keep the tubes running on time? I got into the office OK, but it was some time before I went home that day.’
The London bombings were Yates’ int-roduction to crisis management and the moment she believes she truly proved herself to VisitBritain. ‘Having an answer ready when The Daily Telegraph asked what
impact there would be on tourism an hour after the bombs went off – that was what I was there for,’ she recalls.
She says the bombings were a greater test to her mettle than handling the successful Olympics bid, because ‘good news stories are easy to write’.
Since that day, the plucky Yates has exp-anded her role at the government agency responsible for attracting tourism to Britain. Last month she took on the role of director of strategy and insights, which sees her overseeing policy, research and public affairs, along with a media-facing role.
One of the most interesting elements of Yates’ new remit is her focus on ‘the British welcome’ – changing the perception around the world that Brits are miserable hosts.
Yates chooses her words carefully: ‘We’re an island nation. It shapes our nat-ional character. But at the same time, Germany transformed how countries see it, so we can improve the way we are perceived.’
She ambiguously explains she is taking the new job at a ‘fascinating time’ for Visit-Britain. With the news that chief executive Tom Wright was leaving announced on the day we meet, against a backdrop of funding cuts that spell a 40 per cent reduction in staff numbers, she is remarkably collected. ‘It’s frustrating,’ she says of the cuts. ‘ The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has published a report on what will happen in 2012, but I think it is short-sighted.’
The challenges do not stop there – this month’s Country Brand Index saw the UK slip from third place to eighth in the league table of top country destinations.
And the media’s response to the build up to 2012 has been largely negative, covering everything from the overspending of taxpayers’ money to sarcastic coverage of London’s production at the handover ceremony in Beijing.
Yates bats aside the mention of the handover party. ‘We’ve got a long journey and I’m sure there will be times when we’ll have to hold our nerve. I do think we des-erved to win it and we will do it well.’
Indeed, she remains bullish in the face of such criticism. When asked how she thinks VisitBritain is perceived, she talks of it being an organisation that ‘punches with all its weight’, and she says it has not
yet given up the fight for more funding.
Yates’ tenacity could be down to her 15 years on the other side of the travel media fence, editing Holiday Which?. ‘I would talk to the industry – they didn’t always like what I said, but it was really important that my argument was put in a reasonable manner.’
BGB boss Debbie Hindle, whose agency has worked with VisitBritain, recalls Yates as being ‘firm but fair’ while she was at the helm of Holiday Which?. She remembers some people in the industry thinking Yates’ move to VisitBritain was unusual, but it was obvious she had ‘ability in spades’.
‘She’s formidable, firm, fair, articulate, persuasive, engaging, strategic and can turn a political speech into something to which a sceptical audience will listen and respond,’ adds Hindle.
Yates believes journalists have a huge amount to offer in PR roles, and this is echoed by Nick Trent, commissioning editor on The Daily Telegraph travel desk.
‘She understands the press very well, but she also gets the consumer’s point of view,’ says Trent. ‘Many PROs are good at representing the views of their organisation, but not the consumer; Patricia can do both.’
Does she miss journalism? ‘I used to, but I don’t now. Sometimes when I was selling a story to a travel journalist I thought: For goodness sake, I could just write it!.’
She may not file copy any more, but it is clear this feisty PRO is firmly in control of what is written about ‘destination Britain’.
2008 Director, strategy and insights, VisitBritain
2005 Head of press and PR, VisitBritain
2004 Freelance consumer travel journalist
1989 Editor, Holiday Which?
1983 Editor, Computer Management
1981 Editor, Manufacturing Optics International
1977 Editor, Optics and Laser Technology
Patricia Yates’ turning points
What was your biggest career break?
The move from stuffy tech journalism to a role on Holiday Which?, even though I didn’t have any experience in travel and tourism. I hadn’t even been abroad much.
What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
Take a genuine interest in seeing how things fit together and how they work. Also, take responsibility for your own personal development. Make sure you get clear feedback in appraisals so you can see past what you think you are achieving.
Who has been your greatest mentor?
Sheila McKechnie, the former director of the Consumers’ Association, who died in 2004 and had a foundation set up in her name – she was quite fearless in her campaigning and very empowering to staff. She’d say: ‘If you think you can do it, go and do it.’
What do you prize in new recruits?
A positive personality. People who can take the ball and run with it. And people who can defend an idea. People who are naturally persistent.