From early roots in book publishing, Camilla Nicholls went on to revolutionise the way newspapers organise their publicity as Head of Press and Corporate Affairs at the Guardian. She is currently Head of Communications at Frieze Art Fair. Here, she talks to IdeasTap about having passion for your product and how to deal with a macho newsroom...
Initially, I wanted to work in theatre. It was devastating when my applications to study drama production at university were unsuccessful. I changed my plans and I ended up studying English Literature and European Thought and Literature, which in retrospect was the right choice for me.
After university I did a lot of volunteering before commencing a secretarial course – a day of which was spent working for the publishing house Pergamon Press under the leadership of [media boss] Robert Maxwell. I showed a genuine interest in publishing and a willingness to work hard, and as a result they offered me a job.
I wanted to move away from academic publishing, so I started looking for jobs at other publishing houses in London. A contact introduced me to the woman who was the Head of PR at Faber & Faber at the time. She made me realise just how integral PR was to every aspect of the company. PRs are in contact with the authors, the editors the sales team – everyone. Inspired, I applied for various positions at independent publishing houses and slowly began to climb the ladder.
I joined the Guardian in the late nineties. At this point they used an external agency for all their publicity, so I built up an internal press office. The foundation stone to do this was getting to know the journalists. Having a PR in their midst was very alien to them at the time, and it was doubly hard to get my voice heard as a woman.
The news floor back then was an incredibly macho, male-orientated environment; to win their respect I had to ensure that I always kept pace with them intellectually, if not outpace them.
Once I had established trust with them, the journalists started to disclose the news and features to me before they appeared in the paper the next day. This gave me the opportunity to release press to the broadcast media in a more controlled fashion, in particular the 10pm news, Newsnight and the Today programme – which was invaluable to the company as a whole.
I assembled the press office slowly, winning recognition from other departments as they realised the “money-can’t-buy” publicity we were able to generate. Campaigns that I am particularly proud of include The Cash for Questions scandal, Peter Mandelson’s home loan and Jonathan Aitken’s Sword of Truth.
In order to succeed in PR you have to be interested in communication as a whole, but also you have to be interested in what you’re promoting. I knew I could never work for an agency where one day you had to promote Coca-Cola the next something else.
Despite the tangible results of my work, throughout my career people have suggested that I become an editor or journalist, as if it were something higher to aspire to than the role of the PR. I find this kind of attitude frustrating because it undermines the skill and talent it takes to do a job like mine well. However, today there’s a lot more respect for the industry, as well as many strong female role models, which I think is a very good thing.
Camilla Nicholls was talking to Ellie Nicholls.