PR Richard Brookes on 'running into the burning building' to rebuild the public image of News UK

It has to be said that the first thing you notice when speaking to former News UK head of PR Richard Brookes is the fact he does not have any arms.

But he copes so well without them that within a few minutes of meeting him this is the last thing you think about.

And his disability certainly does not appear to have held him back in a PR career which has included working on some major, and controversial, policies under John Major’s Tory government and for both London mayors, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson.

He came to News UK in February 2013 after five years freelancing. News International, as it was then, was still reeling from the hacking scandal and bracing itself for the first hacking trial.

His former boss, director of communications Guto Harri who joined the company a year earlier, says: “It was like running into the burning building when everyone else is running away.”

Brookes began his PR career under John Major's Conservative government. He helped promote the Disability Discrimination Act, the legislation which ensures fair access to jobs, education, goods and services (but which campaigners at the time felt did not go far enough) and helped  launch the controversial Child Support Agency.

In more recent years (pre-News UK) he has worked on the London Olympics legacy and on using the press to recruit thousands of Olympics Ambassadors for London 2012.

Given the background at News UK – the hacking scandal and other criminal inquiries – did he have any qualms about going to work there?

"People say how can I work for Ken and then work for Boris? Most of my life's been in public service PR – it's about being impartial. Delivering and explaining their policies better.

"I'd followed it [the hacking scandal] very closely and the only way was up. I liked the challenge of helping to regain the trust of the organisation.

“It was an issue affecting a very small part of the company and a very small number of people… there's no point in being in a boring PR job.

“One of the most rewarding things was getting the journalists back on board, getting them to understand that we want to help them as much as we can – that we are always open and always there.”

For Brookes, who stepped down last month to go freelance, one of the high-points in that process was this blog post written by Guardian blogger Roy Greenslade in December 2013 after the June rebrand from News International to News UK

It followed a press event where journalists were invited in to News UK to see the first online subscriber numbers for The Sun.

Greenslade, who had been a strident critic of News International, wrote:

News UK may only be a change of name from News International but the whole 'feel' of the organisation is somehow different.

Perhaps it's the digital age that has transformed the outfit from rugged to smooth, from frantic to measured, from wayward to way to go.

The press conference earlier today at which The Sun's online subscriber numbers were released is a case in point. It was, of course, something of a public relations exercise.

But it was more than that. It exhibited a strategic change of direction at senior management level, a desire to explain itself to the world that has played almost no part in its previous incarnation."

Brookes says: “That felt like a big achievement and a turning point.”

Working for the publisher of The Sunday Times has had particular resonance for Brookes.

Although not a Thalidomide victim himself (at 52, he is a couple of years younger than them) his, unexplained, birth defect is exactly the same as some of those caused by the drug. And he says he knew some of the Thalidomide children (as they were then) from attending the specialist artificial limbs unit at Roehampton hospital.

Brookes wore artificial arms until he was 15, when he said he decided to would “get by with what I’ve got”, one short stump.

He says he was very much aware of The Sunday Times's famous campaign from the 1970s to secure compensation for the Thalidomide victims from Distillers (now Diageo) before joining News UK.

"I was very proud to be working for The Sunday Times and look back on it as one of the best times of my career. I've worked closely with them and it's been great being part of great journalism.”

He remembers getting bullied “a bit” when growing up but recalled one occasion when the bully got more than they bargained for.

"I used to wear these big artificial arms, which were heavy and made of metal. I only ever used them once but never got bullied again.”

He said he didn’t mean to do it, but swung around and clobbered the bully with one of his arms: ”He never came back.”

Brookes’ first job after university was working in insurance. He recalled a colleague who started on the same day was paid £8,000 a year, while he was paid £6,000: “Beggars couldn’t be choosers.” But he adds: “Things have changed a lot since then."

Brookes answers the phone with his arm: “It’s all I need.” And does everything else, such as writing emails, with his feet – placing his laptop on the floor. He drives a modified foot-steering car.

He says: “My disability has helped me in many ways. People tend to want to talk to you. It opens up doors.”

Asked about his motivation for working in PR, he says: “I like talking to people and taking them through stories making sure they get them right. I have a professional interest in making sure my employer gets fair coverage. I also want to make sure that I've got the best relationship with the journalists. You need their help and they may need your help one day…

“I've had a really good experience working with journalists. If the relationship between journalists and PRs is good it’s because they understand each other and don't push it too far.

“You get the odd journalist who says ‘why the effing hell didn't I know that?’ I just say I'll speak to you when you've calmed down a bit.”

Asked for his top PR tip, he says: “Never say 'no comment'. You can give them a statement that isn't actually a comment. But always remember that journalists want some sort of response, and explain to them why you are in that position.

“The worst thing you can do is come over as elusive or side-stepping the question.”

Brookes plans to return to freelance PR in the autumn after spending the summer promoting his wife’s business, Sarah's Pet Portraits, and spending time with his children, aged five and eight.

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