From defending Fred Goodwin to Qatar: Former News of the World editor Phil Hall on ten years in PR

Asked what is the most important media platform for him, PR company chief Phil Hall says: “Newspapers without question.”

He adds: “If I get a product or a client in the Daily Mail they can barely cope with the response. Get it in Mail Online and it doesn’t have the same reaction.”

The former News of the World editor spoke to Press Gazette as he celebrated ten years of his PR firm Phil Hall Associates.

After starting the business on his own with one client, the couple Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, today it employs 67 staff and claims a turnover of £5m a year.

Hall was editor of the News of the World from 1995 to 2000 (preceding Rebekah Brooks). He turned to PR in 2005 after a stint first as editor of Hello magazine and then at Trinity Mirror where he was editorial director.

He says: “I bumped in Heather Mills in Soho, I’d met her at Hello magazine, and she said Paul’s looking for some media advice. I moonlighted by advising Paul and Heather while I was working for Mirror group.

“At Trinity Mirror I wasn’t really doing journalism any more, it was laying people off and trying to cut budgets. That wasn’t what I set out to do with my life. I took the jump with Paul and Heather, and within three months they’d split up.

“Paul called up, said I’m really sorry I can’t hire you because the law firm I’m hiring have got their own PR company. I said don’t worry I’ll look after Heather and he went crazy, shouting down the phone.”

His next client was West Ham, which came about after he wrote “a silly fan’s letter” to the chairman. Other football clients followed (including Manchester City, Portsmouth, QPR, Crystal Palace and David Moyes) and the company has grown from there: “There was no real strategy, we just  followed wherever the work came from.”

Today PHA has five main divisions: Entrepreneurs and business, fashion and lifestyle, sport and leisure, strategic communications and corporate communications.

Hall’s long-term business partners are his wife, who is a corporate lawyer, and Mark Gregory. Last year internet entrepreneur Simon Dolan bought in to the business.

Senior former journalists working for Hall include former associate editor of the News of the World Phil Taylor and former Sunday Telegraph deputy editor Tim Jotischky.

Asked why journalists seem to do well in PR, Hall says: “It’s not a given. The journalists that succeed are the ones who aren’t the wam, bam thank you mam.

“The good PRs who were journalists are the ones who are very good at nurturing contacts…

“Rupert Murdoch’s special quality for me was common sense.

“He was the best boss I’ve ever had, very straightforward to deal with. Most successful journalists who come into PR are the ones with great common sense.”

Journalism is seen by many as trying to reveal things that other people want covered up, while PR can be the opposite. How did Hall manage the transition?

“As an editor I was a professional person being paid to do a job. What you were doing there was being a commercial editor, running the stories that will sell papers and make Rupert Murdoch money. Were some of those stories near the mark? Yes.

“When I came on this side, the view is really the same. It doesn’t mean I believe in the philosophy of every one of our clients. There are definitely clients whose philosophy I haven’t believed in but I will do best I can to convey their message.”

PHA helped the group Dignity In Dying with its campaign to get a change in the law allowing assisted dying. Rival group Living and Dying Well, which argues the opposite position, has since engaged PHA to argue its case.

Hall says: “The Catholic Herald rang me up asking how can you possibly do that? We are just advising them on how to get the message out there.”

Hall also sees no problem in helping his clients keep information out of the public domain.

“People forget that if somebody’s running a public company or a government minister they are entitled to be questioned, but if you have a private business you don’t have to discuss every issue in public.

“If a business has a problem and they admit to that problem openly the business could be gone. You wouldn’t have an HR issue in your company and tell everybody about it. Some things you just have to be managed privately.”

Hall represented Qatar during its controversial bid to the host the World Cup and helped it see off an accusation of bribery (which pre-dated last year’s Sunday Times investigation on the same issue).

He says: “I would not have covered it up if that accusation of bribery had existed. I said they are going to have prove it’s not true.

“I persuaded the newspaper concerned, The Wall Street Journal, to hold off while we investigated their claims. They were proven to absolutely untrue.

“The official concerned was on TV in a different country, and could not have been where they said he was. The information was false.”

Another controversial client is former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Fred Goodwin who was represented by Hall in 2009 at a time that he was widely blamed for helping to bring about the financial crash.

“He came to us via a law firm and really they didn’t want us to defend his banking. They wanted us to manage his family. The kids were being pursued at school. His wife being followed by photographers. He couldn’t move without people hounding him everywhere he went.

“He’s done nothing legally wrong. The methods he used to buy the Dutch ABN Amro bank were the same as he used to buy Natwest. Everyone lauded him for one.

“I spent a few nights drinking whisky with him late into the night and he seemed a really nice guy. But he’s Fred the Shred, it’s very difficult.

“My advice to him was: 'You can’t go public, because they are not going to in any way give you a fair hearing. We can correct some of the inaccuracies but you are going to have to prove to me that they are inaccurate.'”

At one point the News of the World believed they’d tracked the Goodwin down to a house in the South of France. They sent Hall a picture and it turned out to be the wrong location: “I didn’t correct them on that. He was there with his young kids, they were in quite a state.”

Hall cites one “horrific example” of a national newspaper following a car out of Goodwin’s house to an address and then shouting through a loud hailer: “Fred, Fred, we know you’re in there – come out and face the music."

Hall says: “All that was in there was his wife and two young children with grandma. That can’t be right. It was The Guardian.

“I rang them up and they were bloody rude to me. They said they weren’t sorry.”

Hall says that in general terms the UK press “are much better behaved today than they were in my day” and that part of that is down to economics: “They don’t have the resources to stake out a story for days on end.”

Asked whether he thinks the public are as well informed about the infidelities of the rich and famous as they once were, Hall says: “I don’t think so. But I’m not sure we ever had the right to do it.

“In my time Murdoch was very much on my case about the public interest. I can remember we were doing a [kiss and tell] story about Robbie Williams, and Murdoch saying: 'He’s a single guy with a single girl so what’s the story?' He was right.

“The young lady in question gave Robbie 11 out of ten for his performance and when we put it to him he said go ahead.”

Hall says that phone-hacking did not start at the News of the World until after he left, with the first recorded incident in October 2000.

Asked what he made of the News International response to the hacking scandal from a crisis management point of view, he says: “It’s very difficult. It’s so easy to be wise in hindsight. The story developed and things started to evolve.

“Sometimes when you get on a story it’s like riding a rodeo. You have no idea where the story is going to go. News didn’t know the size of the issue. They thought it was an isolated incident involving Clive Goodman. It’s very hard unless people are owning up to something or you’ve got real clear evidence.”

In recent years 34 journalists have been arrested and/or charged on suspicion of paying public officials for story. Two convictions currently stand.

Hall freely admits that he signed off such payments in his time as an editor.

“Journalists must be allowed to pay sources otherwise you won’t get the story. We had a prison officer came to us and said we could buy the key to the prison.

“He’s a public official. He said people were being allowed into the prison, bringing in stuff – drugs and alcohol – and they had sold the key to some of these criminal associates.

“We paid him £500, tested the key and walked in and ran it has a front page splash in the News of the World.”

Another such story involved paying a juror who revealed that a jury reached their verdict by using a ouija board.

But Hall believes that if payments for stories involving allegations of criminality are excessive they can corrupt the source and uses the example of Jimmy Savile.

“I look back and regret that we didn’t expose him. We had girls come to us but they always wanted large sums of money. My view was if you pay somebody £30,000 they are going to say they did something naughty with Jimmy Savile.

“You need people who are prepared to do it for the right reasons. There were a couple of times when we did agree to pay but you could never catch him out. He would never confirm a conversation on the phone, completely shrewd and aware of it. We tried over and over again.”

He says that paying policemen is not something he was aware of while he was at the News of the World: “We used to take them for a drink. They would speak to us usually because publicity was good for their inquiry.”

The journalism industry continues to have reputational issues in the wake of the hacking scandal.

Asked how British journalism can improve its image in the wake of the damage caused by the hacking scandal, Hall says: “It’s just about stories. Look at how good the vibe was around MPs' expenses. The whole reputation of investigative journalism was changed by that. Big stories and proper stories always turn the public sympathy back to the newspapers.” 

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