James Clench, who joined PHA Media in May after 15 years at The Sun, talks exclusively to Gorkana about why he’s made the transition, the stories he was most proud to work on at the national newspaper, having a tête-à-tête with William and Kate, what his journalist colleagues thought of his move and whether he ever put the phone down on a PR…
You’ve just moved over to PHA Media after more than 15 years at The Sun (most recently as head of news). What made you decide to move over to PR?
The Sun was a huge part of my life as I started out there as a graduate trainee (one of their first two) and was running the news operation when I left. Being news editor was rewarding but a very tough gig. You’re keeping a lot of plates spinning in the air and it is all-consuming. Part of my decision was motivated by family – I wanted to redress the balance between work and home life. And part of it was wanting to work in a more commercial environment, to see first-hand how a variety of businesses work.
What did your journalist colleagues think of the move?
I think it was a mixture – some were baffled, some got it. There was liberal use of the phrase “brave move”, which I suspect was a euphemism for “Have you lost your mind?”. When I told them I was going to PHA, there was more understanding – the agency has got such strong links with journalism that it didn’t seem quite such a leap.
During your time at The Sun, what was the biggest story you worked on and the one you’re most proud of?
On the news desk, I was incredibly proud of the work we did on big breaking terror stories – Lee Rigby, Charlie Hebdo, Sousse. They are fast moving, you’ve got to stay on top of the detail and you can only do that if you’ve got a good team around you. Plus you need reporters who are prepared to run through brick walls for the paper.
I loved being a general news reporter for the variety of work, so it’s hard to choose one story. It was humbling to meet the forgiving parents of Jimmy Mizen, the schoolboy who was murdered in a bakery in South East London, eye-opening to spend a day with Pete Doherty at the height of his relationship with Kate Moss, nerve-racking to go to Beirut during the Israel-Lebanon war, adrenalin-fuelled covering 7/7 and fantastic fun “conquering” the Matterhorn before an England-Switzerland game at the Euros.
Before being made associate news editor in 2011 (and then head of news in 2014), you spent a year as a royal reporter at the paper. What were some of your most memorable moments in that role?
I found it very frustrating – the Palace PR team were early adopters of “not giving a running commentary” on a wide array of subjects. As a result, the agendas of the Press and the Palace PR team rarely coincided, although Miguel Head – then William and Harry’s press secretary – was excellent to deal with.
On the plus side, some of the trips were exotic (if generally hard work): South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, India, Australia, New Zealand and Barbados. I was part of a group of journalists who spoke for a few minutes with William and Kate on the day of their engagement moments before they took part in a televised press conference. I don’t think I’d ever heard Kate speak and she was noticeably more “cut glass” than William. She was also well briefed and impressively confident. I also wrote a book on the couple that was published days after their engagement.
What do you miss the most at The Sun?
The excitement of a breaking story or a fantastic exclusive tip coming through to the news desk – and telling the editor about it in conference when it’s ready to go. I also miss some good friends and their quick wit.
What are you not missing at all?
Going into conference on quiet days. Other newspapers getting great stories that we didn’t have. Big stories breaking half an hour before you’re due to go on holiday.
What was your opinion of PRs before considering a move into the industry?
Like all industries, it comes down to the individual involved. Some are very good, some are awful. The best ones were those who showed a bit of initiative, were organised, took decisions and didn’t flap. I was never a fan of aggressive PRs and always thought it was counterproductive for the client. Why make an unnecessary enemy?
Some of the best PRs were the bosses themselves. Mark Carne of Network Rail came in for a meeting and was brilliantly persuasive about the positives of the railways – even though we were in a room literally overlooking London Bridge station, the scene of nightly chaos!
Did you ever put down the phone on a PR when you were a journalist?
No – far too well-mannered. But I was tempted if someone got through to me five minutes before conference with something completely irrelevant.
Your biggest surprises now you’re on the PR side of things?
The variety – both of clients and the number of great eateries in Soho. And this isn’t a surprise – but I’ve been very impressed with the talent spread through the departments at PHA.
At PHA, you’ve been briefed to focus on top-of-the-line clients and online reputation management. What will this involve and which brands are you working with?
I’m able to offer clients an insight into the thought processes going on in newspapers. Which stories are going to run and run, which ones will be a one-day-wonder. Online reputation is a growing discipline where the journalistic skills of speed, accuracy, attention to detail and an ability to look around corners – allied with the tech knowledge of our digital department – are vital. We advise our clients on how to avoid a crisis in the first place – but we also provide an integrated service to those who come to us in the middle of one. I’m working with a number of brands across corporate and consumer including sport, leisure, health and business clients.
Finally, what is your top tip for PRs when dealing with journalists?
Good coffee and pastries delivered to a news desk first thing are a good way to win favour.