Patrick Edwards’ unusual career path makes his latest move to a regional development agency – as head of communications at the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation (LTGDC) – look almost mundane. The truth, however, is rather different.
A community activist turned PR man and former FT markets reporter, Edwards was the brains behind the Stephen Lawrence campaign for justice. He has even represented the Birmingham Six (more of which later). And he learned to ‘control the message’ from Peter Mandelson himself.
So why the change of pace?
‘This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to utterly transform that part of east London,’ booms Edwards proudly.
The self-confessed ‘mouth almighty’ talks a lot. It can be infuriating when he embarks on winding monologues that rarely answer specific questions. But mostly he is fascinating – eminently human and driven by human rights.
‘My entry to communications has been through political and community activism. Mine was a passion for the end point. In a strange sort of way, I became a campaigner and learned to use communications to reach that end point,’ he says.
Edwards was at left-wing law firm BM Birnberg when human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce told him to field media calls while she dealt with the Birmingham Six appeal.
He was in the room when a fax arrived saying the appeal was not being contested.
During a stint with the Southall Monitoring Group, a project set up to monitor racial attacks, he was handed the job of running campaigns at a time when ‘no-one believed racial attacks were happening’. A successful campaign for justice for the family of murdered taxi driver Kuldip Singh Sekhon later led to his work on the campaign for justice in the fatal 1993 stabbing of teenager Stephen Lawrence.
‘Stephen’s murder, I saw straight away, was a Rosa Parks moment [the African American woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus in the 1950s, sparking the modern civil rights movement],’ says Edwards. ‘Until then, campaigns about racial attacks were the reserve of black and ethnic minority media. I was convinced this was a death that belonged to the whole country and the wider media could report.’
Edwards says he controlled the message far more than on former racial campaigns, which had a tendency to be hijacked by people ‘mouthing off’. He drew on the ‘control freakery’ skills he learned from Mandelson and former Downing Street comms director David Hill while doing a stint at the Labour Party’s former offices.
‘Control of the message – total control of the message. Absolutely important. And to say to the press Here’s my number, here’s my fax. You can contact me any time. But if you quote anybody else and claim they are speaking on behalf of the campaign, I’m never going to pick up the phone to you.’
He recalls scratching his head over how to get the Daily Mail on side. Then Stephen Lawrence’s father Neville mentioned he had once decorated the house of then editor David English. ‘We reintroduced them and the Mail understood the campaign.’
People are at the heart of what Edwards does. Throughout the interview he repeats, like a mantra, ‘I don’t ever see myself selling white bread’ – and his great skill seems to be aggressively pounding home a message in the face of virulent media attacks on minority groups. It is a skill that improved the image of the lambasted Child Support Agency (CSA) and the sidelined Disability Rights Commission, and is no doubt what made him attractive for the tough media sell that the Olympics-related east London redevelopment represents.
CSA head of brand and campaigns Lorraine Graves recalls Edwards as a dangerous fast bowler on the agency’s cricket team, and that his enthusiasm for ‘sledging’ (swearing) extended to the office. Graves says: ‘When you deal with so much controversy, you need someone with a strong personality to get the story across.’
Edwards may have been successful because he realised early on the realities of exclusion. His parents, immigrants from the Caribbean in the 1950s, used to organise weekend trips to the seaside for the black community. ‘We all brought out our home-made rice and peas and curried goat, to announce to the people of Ramsgate that Britain had changed,’ he recalls with a grin.
Attending a ‘crap comprehensive school’, meanwhile, played an important role in his understanding of PR. ‘Being billed as coming from the wrong school made me acutely aware of the power of communications,’ says Edwards. ‘And how lethal it is if you are on the wrong side.’
Patrick Edwards’ turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Becoming head of news at the Disability Rights Commission, leading a large press office team and working with a team of committed and talented comms managers with a broad remit just to make things happen. I think we did.
Have you had a notable mentor?
I’ve never had a formal mentor, but I have worked with a number of comms heads whose qualities, skills and approach I have admired and tried to replicate. I often ask myself when confronted with a challenge, ‘how would they do it?’
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Take time to look at the view. I used to harvest job specs to see what skills and experiences were asked for and that I needed. It is a good way to keep relevant and in touch with the market, and I still do it.
What do you prize new recruits?
John Birt in an earlier guise as editor of Weekend World summarised his editorial approach as ‘a mission to explain’. I think that’s a good mission for any PR person.
2009 Head of communications, London Thames Gateway Development Corporation
2008 Media strategy manager, Child Support Agency
2003 Head of media relations, Disability Rights Commission
1997 Head of media relations, University College London
1993 Director, Greater London Action for Racial Equality
1993 Chief press spokesperson, Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign
1991 National ethnic minorities officer, the Labour Party
1988 Legal case worker, Southall Monitoring Group
1988 Media handler, Birnberg & Co solicitors
1987 Trading journalist, Financial Times