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Why Simon Kelner is my PR hero, by W Communications’ Adam Leigh

“Hero” might not be quite the right word, but certainly the biggest influence on my career was Simon Kelner, my former editor on The Independent. We had a complicated relationship for many reasons (not least the fact that we’re members of the same family) but worked together for nearly 15 years – a period in which I progressed from junior sub-editor on the night desk to become deputy editor of the paper. 

It was Simon who inspired me to pursue a newspaper career in the first place. I’d left university with a law degree, and few clues for what to do with my life (beyond an antipathy to practising law). I watched him and his fellow journos laughing, swearing, joking and smoking in the boozer and thought it seemed infinitely preferable to actually working for a living.

I landed a job as a trainee reporter on a local paper and spent six happy years covering parish councils and flower shows before pitching up in the Independent’s newsroom in the autumn of 1995. The internet age was dawning, and the Indy, already squeezed financially, was operating in an atmosphere of near-chaos. Ian Hargreaves, the editor who appointed me, was fired the following day. Andrew Marr, his successor, lasted a matter of months. The door to the editor’s office only stopped revolving when Simon arrived from the Mail on Sunday. 

In those days, journalists behaved as if they were on a mission from God and that the rules of business didn’t apply to them. But Simon could see that while there were many great things in The Independent, it needed to adopt a commercial mindset if it was to continue. He put me in charge of a number of ground-breaking projects designed to keep circulation afloat and generate positive PR. Glossy posters of wildlife and artworks, widely imitated by the competition. Guest-edited editions of the paper featuring Bono, Giorgio Armani, and Elton John. I was tasked with taking the paper “compact” in 2003 – and led the development of ‘i’ from first dummy to full-scale launch in 2010.

Demanding, egotistical and frequently unreasonable, Simon could be a nightmare to work for. But he placed considerable faith in me – handing me control of the newsdesk, where my tenure coincided with 9/11 and the Afghan war, and the features department, where I got to edit some of the finest writers in the world. My Independent adventure ended in 2011, but it will always be part of my professional DNA. Without Simon, the paper would never have survived as long as it did.

Written by Adam Leigh, strategy director of W Communications and former deputy editor of The Independent

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