From journalism to PR: Can a poacher turn gamekeeper?

Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson is the latest in a succession of national newspaper editors to turn to the world of PR after finding themselves abruptly unemployed.

After resigning in January following the Royal phone-tapping scandal, Coulson has now landed a salary of up to £275,000 a year to work as head of communications for the Tories.

His predecessor but one at the NoW, Phil Hall, also turned to PR after his reign as editor ended in 2000.

He said Coulson’s appointment would bring balance to the Conservatives’ media operation.

‘I met David Cameron’s press people and they were steeped in public school and high academic backgrounds and were not particularly connected to the public – Andy has real understanding of the consumer market and what the man on the street is really thinking.’

Hall, who first worked for publicist Max Clifford before founding his own PR firm, said he believed Coulson was taking a ‘big risk”, but added: ‘Great operators take risks and don’t sit on the fence and have a cushy life.”

Hall said that previous speculation about what Coulson would do next had been clearly wide of the mark.

‘The truth is when people part company with Rupert Murdoch nobody knows the whole story, nobody is party to that conversation; it’s held between Rupert Murdoch, the editor and the chief executive and everything is utter guesswork – people don’t have a clue.”

Hall said that what Coulson will bring to the job is ‘an understanding of readers rather than clients”.

He added: ‘Clients often think they have the greatest products in the world, the greatest invention or cure, but that’s not necessarily what the readers are interested in; readers are interested in how it affects their day-to-day lives.

‘A politician looks for a vote every four or five years and an editor looks for it every day, so your antenna becomes finely tuned into what really matters.”

Hall’s former boss, Clifford, had a different take on Coulson’s move and said that tabloid editors don’t necessarily make good PR men because they have too much ‘baggage”.

He said: ‘Journalists aren’t too kind to other journalists when they cross over into PR as Phil Hall found out when he was sacked as editor of the News of the World. I gave him a job and he found it very difficult; I know because I was there teaching him.

‘There’s a world of difference between journalism and PR. Andy’s got to learn that very quickly. People think that one leads to the other, but it doesn’t.”

He added: ‘The pluses are the very close relationship he has with Rebekah Wade and News International, which obviously is something that David Cameron is keen on. Where he’s going to find it ever so difficult is dealing with rival tabloid editors he’s been in fierce, cut-throat competition with.

‘They stitch each other up, they steal each other’s staff, they steal each other’s stories – in some ways it’s going to be harder for him than for someone who hasn’t edited the News of the World.”

Clifford had a professional falling out with Coulson last year, when he refused to give him any more stories about his clients. He was also one of the many public figures whose mobile phones were tapped by the News of the World while Coulson was in charge.

He insisted that he wishes Coulson well in his new job, but said that what he will find hard is the protection rather than the promotion side of PR.

He said: ‘When I started out 40 years ago it was all about promotion, now the emphasis is all on protection. It’s stopping things, stage managing things and controlling things. It’s also about building relationships with your enemies.

‘The problem is David Cameron is someone there’s big question marks over all across the media, even in the Tory media. The Mail has been extremely critical of him and the Mail is a very, very important paper for the Tories.

‘What’s Andy Coulson’s relationship like with Paul Dacre and with Peter Wright, who he’s been in competition with for many years?”

Former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers left his job abruptly in 2005, citing ‘strategic differences with management’and shortly afterwards landed a very senior PR job with investment bank Lehman Brothers.

He said: ‘I think that the world of political communications at the level he is going into has a lot in common with the top of the newspaper world. They live in the same village and they are jousting on the same field.

‘Just as Alastair Campbell was a brilliant choice for Tony Blair, I think Coulson is a brilliant choice for Cameron. It shows what a visceral fight is to come.”

Gowers said he saw no conflict between Coulson’s experience as a journalist and the skills needed to be a successful PR. ‘Journalists are trying to find a story and an angle – politicians are trying to push their own angle. Sometimes they meet in the middle.”

Former Times political editor Anthony Browne, who left journalism last month to become director of the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank, said he thought the appointment could help the Tories reconnect with the press.

‘There’s no doubt that there is room to win over a lot of the papers – my feeling is they’re there to be won over.”

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