Gorkana meets Hayley Barlow
Gorkana caught up recently with News of the World’s former head of PR Hayley Barlow to find out what her 12 year long reign entailed, what she did next after the paper closed, and her part in the attempted rescue of ‘Wally’ the Thames whale in January 2006.
Firstly Prince Harry, would the News of the World have published those pictures?
Undoubtedly yes, if the story had broken in our time.
So how did you find yourself head of PR at News of the World?
Back in 1999 I was working for the PR department of Forte Hotels. A friend from the News of the World called to say the newspaper was looking to recruit a PR manager following a series of high profile world exclusives which had not gone down particularly well with the public. Five interviews later I was appointed the first PR manager for a national newspaper – a somewhat daunting task without a predecessor or rulebook to turn to.
What did the role entail?
The brief was largely two-fold: proactively publicising the NoW brand across news, politics, features, sport and showbiz. This involved creatively promoting the newspaper, editorial content, spokespeople, managing campaigns and co-ordinating stunts across the newspaper, online, broadcast and social media platforms.
At the NoW exclusive video footage became as important as words and pictures and in the early years I would often find myself thrust into a situation and expected to interview a subject on film without a clue as to how to even turn the camera on. I almost miss watching that shaky NoW branded footage on Sundays – but at least I don’t get those calls from angry TV execs berating me for my oversized onscreen logo.
I also wore the crisis management hat. Ironically, it was this hat which remained firmly in place for several years during the phone-hacking scandal until the day the NoW was no more.
So it kept you busy?
From the outset the pressure was relentless. This was no nine ‘til five gig – and with the introduction of smartphones and tablets, communication became more instant and the role more demanding to the point that I was never off duty. I’ve issued statements to the world’s media from beaches in Mauritius and golf courses in Africa. When you sign up to the NoW, you sign away part of your life. I’ve lost count of the friends’ weddings I missed and relationships I’ve wrecked over the years because the NoW always came first.
With hindsight I wish I had taken a step back and questioned that level of loyalty. But at the time, there was no such thing as a grey area – it was all or nothing, black or white, yes or no, in or out – and quite literally in some cases. I’m fairly confident I would have dealt with the closure of the newspaper much better had I adopted a healthier attitude to the work life balance.
That said, for the most part, it was an enormously good fun place to work. An incredible platform to learn from a mix of colourful, eccentric and feisty characters who ensured the office buzzed with dynamism and at times, questionable humour.
Most mornings I would wake with a sense of anxiety not knowing what challenges that day would bring. But after Newsnight, I would look back on my day spent facing the media at the High Court, at a police station or up a cherry picker, laugh and tick it off my ‘never again’ list.
And regardless of events, NoW journalists are amongst the best in the business, what was it like working for them?
I worked with four very different editors throughout my 12 years – all with their contrasting styles and personalities – but above all, I worked with the most talented team of journalists.
Great writers worked alongside gifted photographers and when they came together it made for a fantastic newspaper and one I was very proud of. A rare combination of extremely passionate staff and this cascading effect from the editors that each team member intrinsically knew what the reader wanted.
Since it launched in 1843 the NoW became a phenomenal campaigning machine. Managing campaigns was a hugely gratifying part of my job, but nothing could have prepared me for the furore surrounding some of our high profile and contentious crusades as the media frequently whipped themselves into a frenzy. The newspaper didn’t do things by half measures, but it was because the NoW genuinely cared for its readers that it campaigned tirelessly for causes they believed in and importantly achieved great results.
Are there any now infamous stories you can regale us with?
One of my favourite stories was a Saturday in January 2006 when a whale found itself lodged under Royal Albert Bridge. You know it’s a big story when Sky News cuts all adverts and at that moment was broadcasting footage of a reporter from rival newspaper in the Thames splashing water on this whale. After witnessing this, my editor stormed out his office incensed and yelled at me across the newsroom: “Barlow, we are being scooped by the f*****g Sunday Mirror, get out there and make sure the News of the World saves that whale now!”
I dashed across the office, grabbed a reporter, a photographer and an armful of NoW signage. We hired a boat, bought a dry suit from a bemused fisherman and motored down to the bridge. With the Skycopter overhead, I nudged my reluctant reporter into the water in his dry suit, which turned out to be not so dry, and had him splashing Wally the Whale on live television. We got the picture, but the editor wanted more. Deadline was nearing and the front page was made up and ready to go: “NoW Saves Wally”.
After being threatened with arrest, we kept a discreet distance as the whale was raised onto a barge. Then as Wally made his way down the Thames, our little boat joined the flotilla. Farcical scenes followed as I clutched a NoW banner in one hand, gripped the side of the boat with the other whilst taking instructions from a screeching executive down the phone: “We can’t see the NOW flag on TV, straighten the flag.”
Our photographers were poised on every bridge capturing the scenes but just past Tower Bridge the editor was back on the phone: “We’re getting word the whale’s not going to make it, get off the boat, get rid of that flag and get back to the office. Now!”
There was never a dull moment. One day I was dealing with wedged whales, but the next could involve winding up the Germans during the World Cup or rescuing lions from Romania.
What was the last week of the NoW like?
Quite possibly up there with the worst week of my life. An enormous rollercoaster of emotions which ranged from shock, disbelief to outrage and a whole lot of tears.
But the fact that I wasn’t dealing with this alone helped ease the pain a little. There were almost three hundred of us who found ourselves in this horrendous situation and as a result, an already close-knit team forged an instantly unbreakable bond.
So you left NoW and set up Jubilee Communication, can you tell us more about this venture?
After the newspaper closed, I spent six months job hunting, a period of my life I would rather forget. One headhunter advised that I remove all traces of the NoW from my CV. It was madness. When prospective employers ask what I’ve been up to for the past twelve years, what do you suggest I say: ‘Travelling, but on the plus side I’ve found myself.’ I didn’t take her advice, but make no mistake the stigma attached to those four little words on my CV proved very damaging.
Having spent a decade heading up the PR department for world’s largest selling and controversial Sunday newspaper, working with a team of 150 journalists amid unprecedented media interest and scrutiny, I eventually I decided to go it alone.
I set up Jubilee Communication in January this year, a PR consultancy specialising in crisis management, media relations and media training and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Nine months on I have a steady client base implementing traditional and digital media strategies for companies in the media, sport and business sectors plus several high profile individuals who have made headlines of their own. It’s reassuring to know, given the fragility of the economy, that there is still a demand for public relations and that can only be good for our industry.
Jubilee Communication is growing steadily as a business and I have plans to recruit a PR executive to help build on its success. It’s a tough market, hard work and long hours, but immensely satisfying seeing a client’s name in lights … for all the right reasons.
And are there any lingering thoughts on the News International empire you’d care to share?
No, I have put my News International days firmly behind me. To use that well-worn cliché, it’s onwards and upwards…
Hayley was interviewed by Doug Keighley