Politics Interviews

Nouse interviews PR expert, podcast host and ex-York politician, Paul Blanchard

Dom Smith sits down for a chat with Paul Blanchard, who offers valuable insight into PR, podcasting, networking and how to learn that life as a politician isn't for you

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Image Credit: https://www.paul-blanchard.info/

Anyone embarrassed by how one-dimensional their career has been probably shouldn’t meet Paul Blanchard. To recycle a crass cliché, he really does seem to have a finger in every pie. Having listened to Blanchard’s podcast Media Masters for a number of years now, I always had an inkling he’d be as articulate, genuine and compelling a person as he comes across on the podcast. I saw no other option but to find out for myself whether that was the case. Undoubtedly, it was.

Blanchard works as a consigliere aiming to build and sometimes repair the reputations of global CEOs and top business individuals. He is also host of the brilliant Media Masters, a successful podcast featuring one-to-one interviews with leading journalists, executives, managing directors and other movers and shakers dictating which turn ‘the media’ — whatever that is — will take next.

Asking Blanchard what it is he actually does seems a fair place to start. Although, tellingly, he doesn’t find that question particularly easy to answer. “Do you remember Nathan Barley [the 2005 Channel 4 sitcom character], who used to say ‘I’m a self-facilitating media node’? I’ve always loved that.”

“I’m a reputation manager — so I work for chief executives, founders, ultra-high-net-worth individuals, and I do their personal PR, as it were — so [no] press releases. I [work with] founders [and] get them speaking opportunities, do their social media, build their network, launch podcasts for them — things like that. So, they’re trying to persuade their industry to either take advantage of an opportunity or warn them of a problem. But they’re not trying to sell their product; they’ve already done that. A lot of our clients have made their money, and then they've got 10/20 years of useful life ahead of them. What they want to do is make a difference, build a legacy. It's about philanthropy. What we do emerged from PR, but it's actually about people.

“I have an amazing team with me. My assistant Claire [Booth] runs my life. I’ve got multiple commitments and she schedules it all in. I just get up and do what the diary says and she sort of moves me about! The problem is: we work for some companies where the chief executive has 2,000 staff, or whatever. If we set up a meeting with them, they’re used to the world revolving around them. So, we often get a diary notification change where the chief executive will say this meeting has been moved from Tuesday to Wednesday. Because most of the people in that meeting will work for the boss, there is this sort of unspoken assumption that everyone else will just move their diaries around the chief executive… but I can't do that! My golden rule is that I will move any appointment round for any of my clients, but not if it conflicts with another client. It can be difficult, but Claire is a genius at doing these things.”

Blanchard’s most successful foray into journalism has been his podcast. He’s honest and acknowledges that it has become very popular, but is still appreciative of those who work behind-the-scenes to ensure it can function.

“With podcasting, I have a production team who are absolutely brilliant. I’d say half of Media Masters is me, but a lot of it is [someone saying], ‘Don’t forget to ask the boss of Twitter this…’. That helps me with my confidence; I know I can't dry up because I've got things left to ask that person. I’ve grown my network hugely through my broadcasting career and so that helps me. I meet media people through Media Masters, but if I can build a relationship with global editors, that makes my job easier. I consider it an incredible privilege because I get to speak for an hour to some of the biggest names in the world, and I can ask them anything I like. That is transformative.

“We had about five or six clients that we’d already said we would create a podcast for. We get our clients on other people’s podcasts, but then we also want to position them as a leader and as an arbiter of success and authority in their own sector. So, what better way to do that than to present your own podcast? I was advising some clients on podcasting techniques maybe 5–6 years ago and it struck me at that moment that I was the classic PR fraud. You said that you don't like PR people, and I don't blame you. One of the reasons why we get a bag rap is because I was doing exactly the thing that PR people do;  advising my clients on how to do something that I had absolutely zero knowledge about doing myself! So one of the motivations was: ‘If I'm going to teach my clients how to be an effective podcaster, maybe I ought to do one myself — and media is what I know.

“It got some momentum; we started to get some big names, and then I thought, ‘Right OK I am a podcaster now’. Jeremy Vine did it and he was tweeting about it. I was starting to get some inbound requests from what I would call ‘B-listers’. So we had them on, and then I thought, ‘Right I'll go for the A-listers’… and almost all of them said no. I don’t blame the A-listers for [turning me down] — frankly, why would you go on an obscure media podcast with hardly any listeners? But, a lot of those have now asked to come on. So, you might be editor of the Financial Times, the boss of Sky News, deputy director of news at BBC, you know, the boss of comms at Twitter. That's very nice, I think success begets success. The bigger the names that we get on, the more big names — it’s sort of self-legitimising in that way.

“I don't do it in a calculated or cynical manner. But, I have to be honest, there are two huge benefits [to my career, from doing Media Masters]. One is, I have interviewed two or three global media CEOs who have hired me. I don't do it as a business development exercise because I've got so many listeners now that if I invited someone on just to try and get in with them as a business development exercise, I think I'd lose listeners because they’d say, ‘Who is this obscure chief executive?’. I’ve never had someone on, [thinking], ‘They might hire me.’ But three or four of my guests have hired me afterwards. And that’s deepened my connections within the media. I actually work for two or three of the world's very biggest media chief executives and some senior journalists as well. So that's that.

“The other thing which works is [something] in this grubby PR industry which you are so right to have disdain for. When you’re buying PR services, one of the assumptions that people who aren’t in PR make about PR people like me is they say, ‘What’s your Rolodex like?’. The fact is, I do know the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Matt Murray — and I can evidence that through Media Masters. So, Media Masters services as what I would call evidence of Rolodex. There's this misperception amongst the buying chief executives that the more top people I know, the more favours I can pull in. Here's the thing that's interesting from an ethics point of view: I'm aware that that's important to [the CEOs], but it's not important in real life.

“So, I do know Matt Murray, and if you want to hire me because I know him then that's fine. But the reality is that me knowing Matt Murray means that he'll take my call — that’s it. There’s this mistaken notion that people have — and it's so prevalent — that journalists do favours for people like me; like, ‘Matt will run anything because we’re mates’. He won’t run anything because we’re mates; he’ll run it because it’s a good story, and if it's not, why would he waste his readers’ time by doing that? So yes, I suppose you could say the relationships I’ve built through the podcast helps the top people take my calls. But what they don't realise — the client — is that there’s this huge amount of behind-the-scenes work about making the story interesting [and] relevant, so that when I eventually do ring someone, I know they’re going to take it because it resonates with their readers, that it’s an exclusive.”

With Media Masters gaining such a sound reputation so quickly, the conversation turns to what ensures a guest becomes a guest. What sort of people is Blanchard willing to invite, or accept on if they’ve asked to come on?

“I think if someone is either a known person in their own right or what they're doing is interesting; so it’s got to be an A-list person or an A-list job. People love hearing their journeys. I always say that the best podcasts have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning bit is ‘What’s their journey?’. They were born and now they’re editor of the Evening Standard. The reality is, no one’s [career is that] clear, so people love all the middle bits. The end is slightly more reflective... it's all, ‘What have you learned along the way?’, ‘What mistakes have you made?, ‘What advice would you give to someone starting out?’ — that kind of thing.

“I've got a lot of listeners in America, a lot of listeners in TV, newspapers, all kinds of things. I mean, it is genuinely ‘the media’. So I have to balance it. I find it interesting sometimes that I get challenged for having people on and ‘giving them a platform’. The first controversial guest I had on was Katie Hopkins; it was three or four years ago, before she became absolutely extreme. If I'm honest, I don’t think I’d have her on as she is now, because she has crossed the line into what I’d call actual extremism.” Blanchard is keen to explain that he’s eager to feature a range of views on his podcast, as well as a range of job titles and sectors.

One iteration of Paul Blanchard I wanted to discover more about involved his political career. His geographical ties with York play a larger role than I had thought.

“I was born and raised in York, lived there 30 years: a long time! I know it like the back of my hand having lived there for so long. I knew I would always want to get involved in politics. I was very inspired by Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell and all of those people, and wanted to become Labour MP: that was my goal for 10–12 years. I served on the City of York Council for six years, I was on the regional board and worked at Parliament as well . So I was up the arse of the Labour Party. But I think the best thing that ever happened to me is that it failed. I would have been very unhappy if I’d got elected and then had to serve under Jeremy Corbyn.

“Has my politics changed? Not really, I’m left-of-centre, very socially liberal, pro-business, ‘hand up, not a hand out’, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. They're all clichés, because they're true. What I liked more than anything about Tony [Blair] was that he had strong principles but he was a pragmatist — he got into power. The problem with a lot of Labour people is they want to sit on the opposition benches with their arms folded, judging the Tories, and that's not what it's about. His last speech really moved me. He said: ‘I love the Labour Party and all of its traditions apart from one: losing’. It's a cliché, but you have to be in Downing Street to actually make a difference; they made a hell of a difference.”

As a fascinating interview draws towards a natural close, Blanchard offers one last bit of insight. But while it is most certainly insightful, it’s an answer to be filed under ‘DOESN’T BODE WELL’, at least as far as budding writers and journalists are concerned. His assessment of this industry and how to break through is in keeping with journalism’s loudest critics. How does someone force their way into a job?

“The million-dollar question. The problem you have is that it’s a race to the bottom in terms of fees. One of the reasons that I look after chief executives is because it's a niche. If I was just a normal PR person doing press releases, the problem is there's another 300 companies that could also do that and therefore inevitably my five-grand-a-month retainer gets reduced to fifteen-hundred quid because [someone else] will do it for less. I don't even want to be in the position where I compete against that. The problem you have as an aspiring writer and journalist is that that's when your ambition is strongest and you’re trying to build up a portfolio, but predatory publishers can then take advantage of the fact there’s hundreds of journalism and media graduates that would work for free. I pay all of my interns.

“When Tony [Blair] brought in the minimum wage, the Tories argued that it would disturb the economy and would ruin everything, and it hasn't. A security guard working the night shift shouldn't have been paid £2.50 an hour; it's just disgusting, it's a human decency thing. I think it's also the same if you're a really good media brand that, for altruistic reasons of honour and ethics, you pay people to write for you. If you're prepared to work for free then that's not your fault. Shame on the employers because they should pay you, because they've got the ability to make the choice whether they pay you. But of course, they're either trying to save costs or being greedy or sometimes a combination of both.”

During the course of the interview, Blanchard kindly sends me a copy of his book, Fast PR, which seeks to help the reader master the essentials of PR in limited time. It suddenly dawns on me that, before even opening the book, I feel I’ve already learned a great deal simply from our chat. What’s more, Blanchard has also offered invaluable insight into PR, communications, journalism, podcasting and networking — even politics.

There’s nothing one-dimensional about that.

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