In this first installment of a two-part interview, Alex talks about how his extensive experience - from being an important cog in the Conservative Party machine to making regular appearances in the media as a political analyst - has helped him carve a reputation as a high profile figure in the public spotlight.
Please tell us a little about how you came to work in Public Affairs.
It’s a longish story - so please bear with me! After I finished studying, I worked in UK politics for the Conservative Party: first for Tim Collins, then over the 2005 election at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, and then for David Cameron. My ambition was always to become a barrister; I fulfilled it by being called to the Bar, taking up pupillage in Chambers and leaving my role with the Conservative Party. But after four years of practice, I found that I was missing politics a great deal. So I had a law sandwich and headed back to the political world. I united my interests in advocacy and politics by becoming the founding Director of the civil liberties campaign Big Brother Watch, established by the dynamic founder of the Tax Payers’ Alliance, Matthew Elliott (who is now running the Business for Britain campaign). Meanwhile, my old boss Tim Collins, had become Managing Director at Bell Pottinger, and after 18 months at the helm of Big Brother Watch, Tim recruited me to work for him for a second time, bringing me into Public Affairs.
How has your experience as a barrister helped you in your career?
I specialised in criminal law. The criminal Bar trains people to be concise, effective advocates because one’s on one’s feet in front of different tribunals every day of the week, and to be self-starting and motivated because one’s self-employed. Both of these lessons have served me very well in business.
I can’t really let mention of this go by without saying what a tragedy I think the treatment of the criminal Bar in the UK has been in recent times, under governments of all colours. The criminal justice system in this country has rightly been the envy of the world for generations. Shortsighted, savage fee cuts are putting an end to that in a way that’s profoundly against the interests of justice.
You have no doubt handled a few issues in your time. What would you define as 3 key steps when managing a crisis situation?
First, demonstrate the three Cs: concern, control, commitment. You’re concerned about what’s happening, you’re in control of the situation, and you’re committed to finding out what happened, resolving the problem and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. Secondly, in all that you say, be truthful, whilst not speculating. Thirdly, put yourself in the place of those affected: what would you want to hear and see done if it were you affected by this crisis?
If you’ll let me sneak a fourth point in: don’t forget your internal comms. Your own team needs to know what’s happening, to be reassured, to have answers ready to give. Because it’s going to be them down the pub asked by their mates about the situation, or their children after school, or by their parents when they go home. If it’s a real crisis, their morale may be affected and it’s potentially a time when talent could be lost. Properly managed and informed, your own workforce contains your best advocates – don’t neglect them.
What are your aspirations as the new MD at FTI?
I want to build a profitable and successful team to further strengthen FTI’s global Public Affairs practice and match the teams in the Washington DC, Brussels, Paris and Berlin offices, working across clients drawn from all of the FTI segments – from financial public relations specialists to tax advisory professionals, from healthcare solutions experts to our leading economists. That’s the big appeal of FTI – it is already very successful and embedded in the cream of international business in so many disciplines – so driving Public Affairs within the firm in this global city offers a lot of opportunities.
Is there a particular piece of professional advice you’ve received that has stuck with you over the years?
Don’t claim that you can do something that you can’t. Once you get a reputation for false promises in this industry, you’ll never lose it.
Do you have a role model or someone who you find inspirational?
My father has been my hero all my life. To mention one you’ll know, I also greatly admire David Davis, who’s always said what he believes, forgave me swiftly for working on the other side of the fence during the leadership election, and gave unstintingly of his time, advice and support when we were starting Big Brother Watch. Sadly, Parliament has few big beasts nowadays – he is most certainly one of them.
Can you share any amusing anecdotes (or behind the scenes gossip!) from your TV appearances?
Strategic communications consultants never, ever gossip!
Shame about the lack of gossip but plenty of more fantastic insights from Alex coming soon in the second installment of the interview, in which we get the lowdown on the art of being a top-notch public speaker.