Spending ten minutes with Charles Barber, vice president, PR and thought leadership at The Economist, is time very well spent. Not only does he share some great pieces of PR advice, from why politeness is key to the importance of being trustworthy, but he also describes his unusual career path, which started out with a law degree…
What did you want to be when you were a teenager?
When I was 13, my parents sat me down with two Yellow-Pages-sized directories and asked me to highlight all the careers I thought were interesting. I went straight to ‘L’ for ‘lawyer’, because I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong; tried to fix things and make them better. I was a member of the school debating team and enjoyed arguing both sides of the issue, so law seemed a natural choice. I was also obsessed with the TV series, Crown Court, which shows my age. The deal was sealed when LA Law (starring Harry Hamlin, Corbin Bernsen and Susan Day) joined the TV schedule. It rapidly became my favourite show and I thought their lifestyles were so glamorous that, if that’s how lawyers rolled, I was ‘in’. Slightly naive in retrospect…
Would your teenage self be pleased with how your career has panned out?
He’d be surprised. It turned out that the studying and practicing law was not at all like it was on TV. I quickly became disillusioned with the legal system after realising that it wasn’t necessarily about justice, but the application of the law. The double jeopardy rule (the inability to be tried twice for the same crime) was in place when I was a student, and the combination of that, and learning the laws of evidence, made me realise that I would likely be too emotionally invested in cases, which wouldn’t work at all. So, my teenage self would be surprised to find out that I went into marketing and communications because it was never something I’d considered, or was even aware of.
Why did you decide to go into marketing then?
After I completed my law degree and realised that I was not going to be a lawyer, I thought it best to get some business qualifications so I enrolled in a post-graduate degree in business. Marketing was part of the syllabus.
I was drawn to consumer behaviour, and the whole process that went into creating the image of a product, or service, and how that was then communicated to its audience. It was a revelation to me. Until then, I had merrily gone around buying products, and using services, without paying any consideration to why I was buying them. Why did I favour some brands over others? I also had a friend who had started working in the marketing department at TIME magazine, absolutely loving it, and she said I would really like doing what she did. I respected her views, so I got a job in the marketing department of a publishing company. Turns out I really enjoyed it too.
Have you got any regrets about decisions you’ve made?
Not when it comes to the big things, but I do wonder what my career would have been like had I gone agency-side, instead of client-side. Working across a range of clients, and campaigns, sounds very appealing because I get bored easily, and need to be stimulated. There’s still time if I do want to make the jump. However, I have to say that no two days are the same working client-side either.
When it comes to smaller things such as managing a meeting then, yes, there are times I had wished I had done things differently, or better, to have achieved a different outcome. Once I’ve finished reflecting on them, I try to avoid repeating the mistakes. Being human, I don't always manage that.
What have been your career highlights?
Putting together, and executing, the communications plan for the launch of Economist Espresso was both thrilling and challenging. It was the first time in 171 years that The Economist published daily. John Mickelthwait, the then editor in chief of The Economist and Chris Stibbs, CEO of The Economist Group, spent not much more than 24 hours in New York giving interviews to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal before flying back to London to talk to the Guardian. We were on tenterhooks, hoping Espresso was available on the app stores in all countries as it made its debut on Economist.com. Everything came together and within a few days we'd achieved over 120 million media impressions.
What are the particular challenges of your present role at The Economist? Does it make a difference having PR in your job title?
The Economist provides mind-stretching journalism for the globally curious. Content is provided through various media, such as film and radio... digitally as well as in print. With so much incredible content available to us, the challenge is deciding what story to focus on to spread the message that The Economist covers a wide range of topics. Those topics include science, technology, media, social issues, environment, books & arts, politics, business and finance.
What advice would you give anyone starting out in PR?
It may be a cliché, but for a role that’s all about communication, it’s important to be polite at all times – as difficult and frustrating as that can sometimes be. Relationships are at the heart of PR, and building and maintaining them are critical for a successful career. Go out and network, meet interesting people and journalists, and make the effort to follow up and maintain the relationship. You never know when you are going to call on them.
Keeping abreast of the news is critical, as is the ability to filter through it and find the nuggets that are relevant. Being seen as someone who is current, and up-to-date, impresses clients.
Also, learn the industries your clients work in as quickly as you can. Clients expect you to be as much of an expert in their industry as you are in your own, forgetting that PROs work across many industries.
A piece of advice I was given when I started out was to seek forgiveness rather than permission, but do use common sense when you decide to do something you know may be a little controversial. Almost always, the ingenuity and creativity is welcomed.
If you say you’re going to do something, do it, and do it within the time frame you set out. The outcome is a reputation that you are reliable and trustworthy – two qualities that everyone is after.
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