Prospect Presents… Michelle Gordon, Head Of Corporate And Consumer PR at Virgin Media

You’ve been at Virgin Media for over 6 years and have been responsible for driving corporate and consumer internal and external communications, what are your biggest accomplishments and what’s in store for the future?

My biggest achievement is being part of a team which has transformed Virgin Media into a company which is truly driving the digital agenda in the UK.   I joined a few weeks after the company rebranded to Virgin Media and in that time, we have gone from a company with a poor customer reputation, some ok products and a financially challenging position to one that British consumers love and that is leading the way with market leading services.    It's been hugely gratifying to be part of the financial and operational turnaround of the company and to see our share price go from $4 to $50.  Now that we're part of the Liberty Global group, I'm looking forward to helping take the company on to another level.   Some would argue that the last six years will be hard to replicate, but it's just a different set of challenges on a different scale.

What are your teams biggest challenges?

No day is ever the same, which means the definition of 'big challenges'is constantly changing.  On a departmental level, it's all the things you'd expect from a busy Corporate Affairs team - whether it's protecting the company's reputation to ensuring we're supporting the business' commercial strategy to making sure our employees are engaged and know how they can contribute to delivering on our priorities.  But given the industry we work in and the number of complex issues which arise from the range of services we provide, it's a constant challenge to manage the sheer breadth of issues - and to do so in a distinctly Virgin way!

As you grow and manage the team, what does the ideal team member look like?  

The ideal team member is someone who thinks of the whole rather then just themselves.  That's not the same as being a good team player - rather it's about being someone that realises that PR or internal communications or public affairs is just one part of a much bigger picture and that we're all working towards a larger, often hairier goal.   That's not something that everyone gets and certainly it can take many years experience for people to start to naturally think and act in this way.  I'm also a big believer in people having the right attitude - you can be great at your job, but if you don't treat people well and you don't try to participate in the broader life of the company then you're probably not the kind of person that's going to get ahead. 

What challenges do you think the PR industry faces? 

The industry has come a long way in the twenty years that I've been fortunate enough to be part of it.  But regardless of the recognition that we now get at Board level and widespread acceptance that we provide an important 'strategic' rather then 'tactical' role in company life, there is still some companies who think of PR as providing a support role to our marketing or product colleagues.  And the longer we continue to measure ourselves against yardsticks like media coverage, this type of attitude will continue.

Who do you most admire in the PR industry and why?

My very firstboss at Burson-Marsteller showed me that it was possible to be a strong leader and still be nice - and bring up five children!  Kevin Murray, Chairman of Good Relations Group, is also another person who I think has achieved a good balance of being an insightful leader and a decent bloke.  I also respect his natural curiosity and ability to keep interested in new developments and people.

You started your career in agency, how was the transition to in-house?

I would describe it as a baptism of fire!  And I've loved every minute of it.   There's something about being part of a team that has to be across all parts of the business, that I really enjoy.  I'd never say never about going back to the agency world but the challenge and pack mentality of being part of an in-house team (much like a competitive sports team) seems to suit my personality.</? >

How do in-house Communications teams differ from agency?

I don't think there's much difference but perhaps there is a slightly more heightened sense of togetherness and loyalty from working in-house. I know there are many agency teams that would argue that they experience the same thing so I don't want to be unfair.  Either way, I think the thing we have in common is that there are an awful lot of talented people that work very hard - too hard at times!

What are the differences in the way in-house and agency teams communicate messages / campaigns are put together?  

The biggest difference would lie in the process and perspective on what the end goal is. Whilst a good agency team will always be able to put themselves in the shoes of the in-house team, there are a lot that still don't think about the bigger commercial or reputational goal - and make the mistake on just focusing on the communications objectives.  

What are the pros and cons of in-house?

There are so manygreat things about working in house - getting to know a business inside out, being part of the long-term planning and execution of a strategy to getting to interact on a daily basis with a variety of roles and departments.  I'm being very biased, but I don't see too many cons about working in-house.  My only tip would be for those people that are starting out in their careers - working agency side provides a really good base to learn a variety of skills and get exposure to different companies and industries.  Having to work for clients (even demanding ones!) is also a great way of learning how to deal with different styles of management.

What are the biggest challenges people face when moving from agency to in-house? 

Without sounding like a broken record, it's so important to understand how PR/Comms fits into the bigger picture and goals of a company. A lot of people struggle with this when they first move in-house and become too focused on the immediate communications objectives and don't always think about how a campaign/activity can work to the benefit of the whole company.   It can also be difficult to understand the huge range of internal stakeholders that need to be kept informed and collaborated with - I've seen many people making unilateral decisions without understanding who and what needs to be taken into account.

What do you feel the new big social media trends or apps will be and how might you use them to benefit your brand?

I think it'll be less about THE app or THE trend - but how people seamlessly weave a combination of these into their working and social lives.  More of us will be doing stuff socially and those that are using social media, will be doing even more of it.  Those brands that are able to provide a simple but engaging way of helping people to deal with the plethora of online options and navigate all of the choices available, will be those that stand out.

What are common mistakes candidates make in interview with you? 

Not truly being themselves. I know we all embellish (we do work in comms after all!) but I'd rather someone be upfront about what they haven't done or be candid about a past negative experience, then busk their way through an interview.  Whilst I certainly don't want the interview to turn into a complaint session - I'd still rather understand the reality of a candidate's background and experience.

What do you like most about your job?

I think Iam extremely lucky to have worked for Virgin Media during a time of hugely interesting challenges and as part of a leadership team, which was so focused on doing the right thing for our customers and shareholders.   Now that we are moving onto another phase of the company's development, I think my job will be just as rewarding but with slightly different challenges.  It's the buzz of being part of a company that's challenging the industry norms and doing things our own way - which has made me love coming to work.

What could you not live without?

My other half, sunshine holidays and friends who have sense of the ridiculous.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? 

A journalist friend keeps reminding me thatthere won't be a business card holder on my gravestone - I think that's her way of saying I work too hard!  But there's something very powerful in that.  Over the years, I've had to work out how to achieve the elusive work-life balance we all crave.  I haven't got there yet but I do keep coming back to that saying and try to keep it in mind every day.


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