Mike Lee OBE tell us about turning negatives into opportunities
Role: Chairman Organisation: Vero Communications Mike Lee OBE was featured in the 2015 PR Week Global Power Book. As part of our #PRProSeries, Janie Emmerson, MD of Communications at Hanson Search, interviewed Mike to find out how he made it in the industry.
Why did you get into communications?
I came out of the political fold originally. Working for the Labour Party and then as a special adviser, researcher, speech writer and all-round media guy for David Blunkett, who was then a Shadow Minister. When I left that job I moved over into public affairs consulting at a company called Westminster Strategy. There we developed an approach to integrated campaigns, which involved public affairs and lobbying, but also involved media and communications. I suppose it was there that I really started to hone my skills as a communications specialist. I started winning various projects in the sporting world, including a major role with the English Premier League in the mid-1990s, and from there to Director of Comms and Public Affairs at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). That was partly political, partly public affairs and also trying to introduce communications in a more strategic way, linking it to things like anti-racism campaigns and working with influencers and decision-makers, including in Brussels. After UEFA I was appointed Director of Comms and Public Affairs for the London 2012 bid campaign. Following that, rather than continue to work on the organisation of the Games, I wanted a change. My ambition was to set up my own company so I created VERO in early 2006. It’s now 10 years on and we’ve built a great team and a real business in strategic communications in the business of sport.
What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career?
I suppose top of the list would be thinking strategically. I’ve developed my career with a belief in the importance of working and operating in an integrated and strategic way. One of the impacts of the approach is that VERO tends to be operating at the very senior end of any project. And it was these qualities which I tried to bring to my in-house jobs at UEFA and London 2012. Another key for me is ensuring there is a strong narrative around any communications and thinking through the best way to bring that narrative to life and never being deflected too much by the daily ins and outs of a campaign.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?
I think it’s being able to create, maintain and build my own consultancy. We have faced many different challenges along the way, some huge projects and a significant degree of success. The challenge has been maintaining that commitment to go on being creative, energised and driven to be successful, making it work for a decade and keeping the company both profitable and fun.
Who would you say has been the most inspiring person you’ve worked with?
David Blunkett was very inspiring. David was blind and had worked very hard to overcome his disability to achieve what he achieved as one of the UK's most important politicians. He was inspiring in many different ways. I was also impressed by the Chief Executive at UEFA when I joined, Gerhard Aigner. He had worked in UEFA for 30 years. He was driven, always learning, still a reformer and spoke seven languages. I learned a lot from him about the world of sport and it was really the first time I encountered a truly international environment and he helped guide me in the complicated arena of the global politics of football.
What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
‘Appreciate your assets’. And that’s not just on a personal level; it’s professionally, when you’re working on a project and trying to get the best out of it. It’s so important to try and discover the unique selling points, the core narrative, the strengths that a client has. Appreciating those things and turning any negatives into opportunities is crucial.
In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry?
What is already underway – the massive rise of social and digital media. When I think back to London 2012, we felt we were being innovative with the use of a website and texting. Now any sports campaign includes the use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc, particularly Twitter. It’s that ongoing digital, social media revolution that is really the one to watch. Where that will end in 10 years is impossible to say because it’s all moving so quickly. Even in the last three or four years, the way in which communications has changed is significant. Social media has become vital for communicating with the public, but also the media. I would be loathe to predict what it will all look like in 10 years’ time but different for sure.
What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?
Strategic. Creative. Impactful.
Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications?
I have enjoyed my professional journey but I suppose I got my dream job in the end. I always wanted to have my own company, run it and make it a success. It gives me the opportunity to work around the world in a lot of interesting cultures and on a wide range of projects. Being Chairman of VERO is where I see my future, working with a great team and continuing to deliver on exciting projects.
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