PR Pioneers: Steve McCool, Hume Brophy

First published in January 2013

When you join a bank as a tax accountant you probably don’t imagine that one day you’ll be working in public relations, but that’s exactly what happened to Hume Brophy’s Steve McCool.

“My move to PR was accidental” he explains. “First I moved from tax accountancy to mainstream accountancy, and then into a corporate strategy role. When I joined UBS in 1999 I was supposed to be doing competitor analysis, but my office was across the hall from the CEO who would steal sweets from my desk and ask me to write stuff for him”.  McCool’s writing for his company subsequently spanned speeches, presentations, internal comms and rebranding, though he never spoke to a journalist. But by this point aware of where his career was destined, when a vacancy became available in his employer’s media relations team he jumped at the chance.

Then, after fifteen years of working in-house in a regulated industry, he joined Weber Shandwick and experienced something of a culture shock. “It was so much more informal”, he says. “Agency life is very different to working in-house. Which is presumably why, before joining Weber, loads of other agencies had said that I wouldn’t transition well from one to the other, which meant I kept losing out on jobs to other PRs who had more agency experience. But you quickly learn to adapt, and by the time I left Weber Shandwick I was MD and Head of Financial Communications, so I didn’t do badly!”

In fact, McCool thinks that agencies are sometimes missing out on really good talent when they dismiss in-house practitioners applying for roles simply because of a lack of agency experience. “There is often a shortage of people in agencies who have seen things from the client side” he notes. “Agency staff often don’t have a grasp of why firms may not want to announce something, and unless you’ve seen it from their side it can be hard to understand, so it’s useful to have that knowledge in your team”.

Once settled into agency life, McCool was in no hurry to leave Weber Shandwick, but was nevertheless persuaded to join Hume Brophy to head up its London office just under three years ago, and he is now particularly enjoying being more hands-on with clients.

“At Weber I was caught up in doing lots of management tasks. But the team here at Hume Brophy is smaller, so I have to be more involved with client work, and I love it”.  He has always had his own Gorkana log-in, though admits he’s not the best at writing press releases or creating media lists, declaring “I am much better at editing”, but he likes the strategic planning with clients and loves to pitch for new business.

With 60 employees across London, Paris, Brussels and Dublin, Hume Brophy is a niche player specialising in financial services and public affairs. McCool expects his staff to be multi-skilled, “we don’t have people who just write, we need them to be able to write but also to manage client relations, pitch to journalists, and be involved in new business”.

“We have to be digitally savvy too” he observes. “At every pitch in the last twelve months the client has asked about social media. That’s a big shift from just a few years ago”.

Social media has changed how they do their jobs at Hume Brophy too. “Twitter is a great way of getting an insight into a journalist, and different than reading what they have written in print. There’s no editor in the middle to muddy the waters, and on social media journalists are much more direct and open”. But despite the advances in technology, McCool doesn’t think the future of the industry will be radically different. “Clients still want print coverage”, he says. “They are starting to see the value of online news too, but they still want a paper to print something about them”.

The industry does have issues to face though, as he explains “clients are squeezing budgets and it’s hitting agencies. Staff retention is something the industry must face too. Here we pay well and give our staff plenty of responsibility and the opportunity to develop. As a partner, I take time to explain why certain decisions have been made and it makes for a much nicer working environment”.

Hume Brophy is a serious place to work but he insists they have their fun moments too. “The office bake-off is a popular challenge. And we have two parties a year – one at Christmas and one in the summer, and we are keen to make sure staff have a good work/life balance. If they need to go early to go to the doctor, or even just to visit parents, to go to the theatre, or to have a long lunch with friends, then that’s fine (within reason!). They and their colleagues make sure the work is covered and they send out an email telling everyone it’s SOBS (signed off by Steve) and then go. No one has to lie about why they are leaving early and everyone appreciates that”.

And Steve tries to have a good balance himself. “I work from home once or twice a month and it’s great to have to some quiet time and to catch up. I also try to avoid taking work calls on holiday, although my team know to call if its urgent, and that I will answer emails at least once a day”.

When not at work he’s at home in Greenwich with his wife and two young sons. “My wife works too, so for us it’s a constant juggling act. I am the least sporting person ever, but I spend most Saturdays and Sundays at rugby, football, cricket and swimming pretending that I know the rules and cheering on the boys”. His passion, though, is cooking. “We have an annual party. Last week we had 35 people at our house and I made loads of canapés, three main courses and five desserts”.

Back in the office, Steve’s greatest frustration is the lack of transparency when pitching for new business. “It’s rare that we are ever given a budget or guidance as to what level to pitch at. We’re often not told what the process is and how many other agencies are trying to get the business, yet that information can give you some great insights into what the prospective client needs in terms of a PR strategy. Pitching in a vacuum is not ideal for the agency or the client”.

Despite this, Hume Brophy are continuing to win pitches and McCool is keen to try and enjoy the present. “We are lucky that we work with really lovely clients. I love what I do. I’m not one of those people who plans ten years ahead. How can you enjoy what you are doing at the moment if you are always looking for the next thing?”

LINKS: www.humebrophy.com

Words: Sarah Stimson