Captain Michael Davis-Marks must be the only comms chief in the UK who can also command a nuclear submarine, which is not a bad skill to possess in an increasingly adversarial communications environment.
Not that Davis-Marks, or ‘MDM’ as he is known in the armed forces, is the kind to seek a ‘nuclear option’ when dealing with the media. The 51-year-old Navy veteran is ebullience personified – the sort of character who, in past generations, could have been typecast as the backbone of an empire.
Three years into his role as head of PR for the Royal Navy, Davis-Marks’ skills as a natural communicator are starting to pay off when it comes to wielding his £1m budget. Despite the odd crisis, the Navy has become a fixture on our TV screens, thanks to a slew of documentaries and reality TV shows. It is part of a strategy Davis-Marks has actively pursued to raise the Navy’s profile, in response to an affliction he calls ‘sea blindness’. He explains: ‘My biggest challenge is that although people in this island nation know we have a Navy, and our reputation is high, very few actually have any idea of what the Navy does.
‘We’re over the horizon, while the media cameras are land-based. Seventy per cent of Earth is covered by sea. We call it the Earth, but maybe we should call it the sea.’
This last suggestion is perhaps unlikely to ever see the light of day. In the meantime, Davis-Marks has put his faith in a rather more concrete approach, enlisting TV star and armed forces enthusiast Ross Kemp to help promote the Navy.
‘Ross Kemp put his arm around me at The Sun Military Awards and said he would really like to go onboard a ship during an anti-piracy patrol,’ recalls Davis-Marks.
That approach led to the acclaimed Sky1 series In Search of Pirates, and Davis-Marks has agreed to a new show that will feature Kemp onboard a submarine.
Davis-Marks’ success in transforming the Navy’s media presence, from one documentary to 28 during his stint as head of PR, highlights his impressive networking abilities. Jeremy Greaves, EADS comms and PR V-P, himself an ex-Navy officer, says: ‘MDM is a consummate networker. The military does not do comms well, but where MDM has been interesting is that he has done a lot to create stories.’
Greaves points to Davis-Marks’ ‘phenomenal clarity of thought under pressure’, which he says is a direct consequence of his experience commanding a nuclear sub – a distinctly difficult rank to reach.
‘It’s not a bad thing for a comms professional,’ adds Greaves. ‘There’s only one thing worse than being cannon fodder and that’s being camera fodder. MDM is prepared to walk into a room that may well be hostile and engage with audiences that are combative. He’ll be on message and it will be done in a sensitive way.’
Davis-Marks has certainly had his share of hostile moments, most noticeably when 15 Navy personnel were seized by the Iranian military in 2007. He does not attempt to sugar-coat the crisis. ‘It was the trickiest situation with which I’ve had to deal, because I was on leave at the time,’ he says. ‘There’s no denying the Navy took a reputational knock – we were embarrassed by it and there was an aftermath that needed careful handling and downright honesty.’
Then, of course, there is the issue that will not go away. ‘Iraq and Afghanistan have taken up quite a bit of time,’ he admits. ‘There’s been quite a lot of effort in trying to explain to a discerning audience why we’ve done what we’ve done.’
Despite the gravity of these issues, it is hard to imagine Davis-Marks ever thinking twice about his decision to take charge of PR, even if he possesses a negligible background in the discipline. Nor does he have a PR agency on which to call, instead relying on Greaves and FD director Simon Elliott for informal advice. Asked if a civilian might achieve better results, Davis-Marks counters: ‘There is no question you can’t ask me about the Navy. I bring the passion of serving 32 years in it. You can’t bring that passion if you haven’t lived it.’
Greaves is a little more circumspect: ‘The problem with the Navy is it doesn’t have marketing or comms specialists. It’s a huge risk. Compared with his predecessors, though, MDM is one of the few who understands strategic proactive comms.’
So much so, adds Greaves, that he would be an asset to any company: ‘He has gone from a relative beginner to the top of the game in a short space of time.’
High praise, but Davis-Marks is not one to rest on his laurels – not when, as he says, ‘there is widespread media ignorance about the Navy’. While his performance so far has been largely successful, there is still plenty of work to be done before he can truly proclaim ‘mission accomplished’.
Michael Davis-Marks’ turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Passing ‘Perisher’, the course that all submariners take if they want to command a submarine. It aims to see how you react under extreme mental and physical pressure and is as much about knowing your weaknesses as anything else.
Have you had a notable mentor?
Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope OBE, who takes over as First Sea Lord this month, was the commanding officer of Perisher. He remains a mentor to all his successful students. He has done incredibly well.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
The Royal Navy is not a job; it is a way of life. Unless you understand that, you may not fit in, but it is also one of the most rewarding, challenging and stimulating careers available in the UK and you will succeed purely on merit. You will also work for one of the most prestigious ‘brands’ in the world – my strapline for this is: ‘Join the Navy, see the world, make
What do you prize in new recruits?
Attitude, determination, loyalty, commitment and, possibly most important, a sense of humour.
2006 Head of defence PR, Royal Navy
2004 Deputy assistant chief of staff, underwater warfare division, Fleet HQ
2002 UK Maritime Battle staff
1999 Staff officer submarines, British Defence Staff (Washington)
1996 Commanding officer, HMS Turbulent
1992 Senior divisional officer, BRNC Dartmouth
1990 Executive officer, HMS Triumph