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How a former journalist went from “poacher turned gamekeeper” to set up a PR agency

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As former editor of News of the World and Hello! Magazine, Phil Hall knows a fair bit about the media landscape. So, deciding to make use of this knowledge, he set up PHA Media in 2005 with wife Marina, a former chartered and European patent attorney. Ten years on, it has a 70-strong team, has represented over 500 clients and recently broke into PR Week’s top 20 independent agencies list.

The husband and wife team sat down with Real Business to discuss why a journalistic approach has brought them success, recruitment troubles, and how to work alongside your significant other.

During his time running a magazine division for Trinity Mirror, Phil was introduced to former Beatle Paul McCartney, who asked the journalist about the prospect of being advised by him. He then set up PHA Media to concentrate on consultancy work. Marina noted that, at this early stage, the business was very much a work in progress. “Our office was our loft room which had been used as a spare bedroom,” she said.

The company has since built up a breadth of clients that Phil feels is “probably the broadest in the industry”. He mentioned defence companies, fashion ranges and sport brands, as well as “high-profile crisis management situations”, ranging from startups and SMEs to entrepreneurs and multinationals.

An interesting feature of PHA Media is its commitment to developing interns and helping them progress through the business. Marina feels this is important both for cultivating loyalty and in building an understanding of the work culture within PHA Media.

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“Many of our staff started as interns. They understand the culture better than most because they have known no other full-time work environment,” she explained.

It’s a consistent process that has meant “many of our senior management team started at junior level”. Marina added that “we smash the industry norm on staff retention”, and as well as the focus on nurturing talent, thinks giving employees the freedom to fulfil their ambition is the best way to motivate staff.

She also feels staff retention can be improved by supporting staff in problem solving and rewarding them when they’re successful. It may sound fairly simple, but in a highly-competitive job market, actually making sure you deliver on the basics can get overlooked by businesses. A happy worker who feels looked after is obviously going to be less likely to get itchy feet and start checking recruitment sites.

Marina said it’s this development of young staff into “mature PR professionals” that is the biggest highlight of the job. “We’ve worked so hard to build a culture which is inclusive, supportive and allows people to develop,” she said, so it’s particularly rewarding to see it pay off in front of her eyes.

A decade since being established, PHA Media now has a steady workforce and diverse client base. The interesting remaining question is how Phil and Marina balance their professional setup with their personal lives – to what extent do you get an overlap and can you ever switch off from work?

Unsurprisingly, they admitted to taking work home with them, but Phil feels the positive here is that they have someone they can debate issues with at home, because each person “really understands the full story”.

Rather than conflicts of interest, he added that as both are “pulling in the same direction, there’s always totally support”. On the flip side, with both constantly switched on and dealing with queries, Phil said it can impact on family holidays as a result.

The two also bring different attributes to the company – Phil’s background as a journalist obviously provides the knowledge and understanding of how the media operates, while Marina’s background as a European patent attorney has brought her HR and legal acumen to PHA Media. She also mentioned their other business partner as key in bringing “structure and drive to the table”, helping “propel the business to where it is today”, though she feels the quality of staff throughout has been instrumental to its success.

The advantage to having such different skill sets also means their areas of interest don’t overlap to the extent where there’s a clash in opinion over big decisions. “There have been three partners for some years and we go with the majority,” Phil added. They recently added a fourth for further experience.

As the couple oversee PHA Media’s growth, they noted a difficulty that has been cropping up is one that’ll be familiar to the majority of employers in the current market. Recruiting staff good enough to work for PHA is something Phil acknowledged as the biggest challenge as the company develops. 

The vice president international of recruitment technology provider Jobvite, which just opened its first London office, said the jobseeker is now “the one in the driver’s seat”, making employers wake up and pay attention to the employer brand and their candidate experience.

Lahey mentioned that a similar economic recovery had taken place within the UK, with the jobs lost in the recession now replaced. “Even if they have a great brand, they’re fighting a war for talent,” he pointed out.

PHA is one of many employers finding recruitment a tricky area to stay on top of, as the skills shortage continues to be a blight for many industries – notably construction, science and technology. Nevertheless, the business itself continues to flourish with at least ten per cent year-on-year growth.

Marina said they wished they were aware of the gap for a “journalistic-based PR company” sooner, as once they tapped into this, business soon took off. With Phil at the helm, there’s the nous of knowing the media from both sides. He worked his way up from a stint on a local paper, to a magazine, then onto national newspapers and finally an editor. “It is useful to be a poacher turned gamekeeper,” he agreed, “because I know what journalists are thinking and how they operate”. 

Image: Shutterstock

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