Paul Charles is cruising at 35,000ft. He is sitting in the upper class bar, glass of champagne in hand, on a flight bound for New York. The plane left Heathrow Airport just hours after the Government approved plans to build a controversial third runway.
On the morning of our meeting, Charles has already handled a photo call with US President Barack Obama’s family members, who were flown to Washington for the inauguration by Virgin Atlantic. He has also been interviewed on the Government’s third runway decision by a series of broadcasters, including Sky News and the BBC. It is still only 2pm.
This demanding schedule is certainly not unusual for 37-year-old Charles, who has overseen the airline’s global comms since 2006. After a hectic 2008, 2009 sees the Virgin Group’s flag carrier celebrating its 25th anniversary. The first part of its celebrations – a quirky 80s-inspired ad – is already making waves in the press. So is speculation that the airline will merge with bmi, a suggestion Charles does not deny.
The Virgin brand has won various plaudits, including being one of the most respected among PR professionals for the past two years in PRWeek’s Power Book. ‘Here we are, in the worst economic conditions for 30 years, and we’re out there with a confident ad for our anniversary,’ says Charles, pointing to Virgin’s legendary optimism. ‘Depressing people further is not the job of a press office.’
Virgin prides itself on being a ‘people brand’ and focusing on the customer experience. Interestingly, Charles calls journalists his ‘customers’ and says it is his duty to take the product to them. ‘Why would you want to restrict information flow? You don’t improve your product that way,’ he argues. ‘We open up as much as possible to the press. I don’t mind constructive criticism but there’s nothing worse than a journalist who writes something bad without experiencing the product first.’
If customer feedback is a good measure of performance, Charles passes with flying colours. ‘Paul Charles is one smart cookie. Behind that cuddly and extremely personable exterior is a razor-sharp PRO,’ says Daily Mail transport editor Ray Massey. ‘It is often said there are only two qualifications required to be a journalist – rat-like cunning and a plausible manner. I think Paul would make a very good journalist.’
Another national business journalist agrees: ‘Paul runs rings around the much larger PR teams at Virgin’s rivals because he hasn’t allowed himself to go too corporate. He talks to the media about more than just what Virgin is up to and is therefore a more useful contact than his equivalent at other airlines.’
Virgin’s ‘people brand’ motto applies to its staff as well as customers. Charles’ regular contact with both his counterparts at other Virgin brands, his integrated approach with his own marketing team, and his almost daily calls with CEO Steve Ridgway and president Richard Branson betray a close-knit, almost cult-like, community.
‘You have to trust your own people to sell,’ argues Charles. ‘If I had a spare £30,000, I’d rather employ someone passionate than a PR agency that might do a good job, but isn’t there for the long term’.
Yet while Virgin trusts its staff, it also expects a lot. Charles is glued to his two phones from the moment we meet until the plane’s wheels leave the ground. The phones are turned back on the minute we touch down on a frozen New York
He jokes the job is ‘25/8’ and says he takes it personally if things go wrong during press trips. He also never misses an
opportunity to take a swipe at rival British Airways, or talk up Virgin Atlantic, but the comments slip so naturally into his conversation that they sound genuine.
Charles claims that he finds being airborne ‘more relaxing than a massage’ because it is the only time he can escape the incessant phone calls. His refuge was invaded, however, on his last journey to Boston when Branson contacted him through the flight desk. ‘They found me’, he smiles, ‘but that was a rare moment.’
But if his job is now all-encompassing, Charles should have been more careful about what he wished for. In 1996, when still a BBC journalist, Charles told Branson during a press trip that he wanted to work for him one day as a PR guy. ‘It was a bit tongue in cheek but I thought it would be a fab company to work for,’ he remembers. Ten years later, Branson’s right-hand man Will Whitehorn called up out of the blue to offer him the job.
Now, drinking champagne in upper class, he really is living the high life.
What was your biggest career break?
Being selected to be a frontline presenter for BBC radio business programmes. The access to senior business and political leaders was wide, enabling me to create a strong network of contacts for the first time. Working at the BBC opens many doors to the outside world.
What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
Don’t give up if someone says no to you. Strong leaders don’t let knockbacks get in the way of career growth or development.
Have you had a notable mentor?
Nick Mercer, commercial director at Eurostar, is an inspirational leader who is very customer-focused. He taught me about integrated marketing and empowering your direct reports to do what they think is best, rather than checking every decision with the boss first.
What do you prize in new recruits?
Hunger to proactively deliver good publicity. I’m not a fan of reactivity. Fresh thinking is vital too.
2006 Director of comms, Virgin Atlantic
2005 Non-executive director (part time), Lewis PR
2003 Director of comms, Eurostar
2001 Head of comms, Misys Group,
2000 Editor-in-chief, Screentrade
1993 Presenter and reporter, BBC News