Twenty years not out for Weber Shandwick chief
From training up John Bercow to helping helping to kill off the BSkyB aquisition, Jon McLeod has a story to tell as he enters his 20th year in public affairs. He speaks to David Singleton.
When Jon McLeod had just started in public affairs, he set out to help a client responsible for leaking “orange clouds of gas” above primary schools in Sheffield. The youthful lobbyist began by getting Sheffield University to carry out a comprehensive audit of the site and to come up with a list of recommendations. He then arranged a press conference to spell out the bold action being taken by his client.
Alas, his cunning plan went pear-shaped when details of the event were disclosed by the local media.
“When we turned up, the local community had occupied the press conference,” he recalls. “They were sitting on the platform that we’d set out for our clients, facing the cameras of the broadcasters we’d invited, who then proceeded to broadcast their message. So we were completely shafted.
“The MD of the company at the time locked himself in a broom cupboard, hiding from angry residents. I remember having to negotiate the release of my client from this broom cupboard and off we went. As complete and utter balls-ups go it was a pretty good one.”
As he enters his 20th year in the public affairs industry, McLeod is clearly confident enough in his prowess as a lobbyist to laugh off his early misfortunes.
He has good reason to feel he is on top of his game. Not long ago, McLeod played a key role in the highest profile lobbying campaign of recent times, helping to kill off the acquisition of the whole of BSkyB by News International. Weber Shandwick’s work for the media alliance opposed to the bid was then referred to in the Leveson Report, where Leveson gave it a clean bill of health. “That was a pretty mega campaign for us, all-consuming,” says McLeod.
In recent years he has also prepared big-name bankers for select committees and he took personal charge of steering The Guardian through the politically choppy waters surrounding its Snowden revelations. “Lots of people claim to have trained Bob Diamond, I’m the person that did train Bob Diamond – eleven times,” he says. “Everyone from Bob Diamond to Alan Rusbridger, so that’s a fairly broad spectrum of individuals.”
On top of this, McLeod is proud of the fact that Weber Shandwick’s public affairs campaigns have been awarded two prestigious Cannes Gold Lions in recent years – a rare achievement for any lobbying outfit. “It’s what Weber Shandwick aims for. It’s a great credit to public affairs,” he says.
A former journalist, McLeod’s first job was on Public Finance magazine just as the poll tax was becoming the big political issue. As something of an expert on the subject (and an ardent Labour supporter), he got to know Mike Lee, chief of staff to Labour’s then local government spokesman David Blunkett.
It was after McLeod had moved to the Law Society magazine that Lee got in touch to offer him a job at the legendary lobbying firm Westminster Strategy. McLeod’s first client would be the Bar Council.
Seventeen years later, the Bar Council remains a client of his and he remains a big fan of the profession. “It’s no coincidence that I’ve employed a number of barristers over the years,” he says. “I see the affinity between advocacy in law and advocacy in politics very strongly.”
McLeod narrowly missed working with industry heavyweights Peter Bingle and Kevin Bell at Westminster Strategy, but he did work under Michael Burrell, now chairman of the APPC. As McLeod moved up the ranks himself, he hired John Bercow, then special adviser to Virginia Bottomley. “Bercow’s a great guy and his politics have become ever more sound as he gets older,” he says with a mischievous smile.
McLeod made the move to Weber Shandwick as Tony Blair was swept into Downing Street in 1997. While Blair has long since left Westminster, McLeod remains firmly in place at Weber Shandwick 17 years later. “I certainly didn’t think I was any good at the time so they obviously did something right,” he says modestly.
McLeod detects three key changes to the industry in the 20 years that he’s been involved in it. Firstly, he points to the sheer number of people who now want to be lobbyists. “I interview young people who come and say ‘I want a career in public affairs’. Whereas when I left university in 1988 I didn’t even know what it was. Undergraduates now know what public affairs is and they know they want to do it, which is extraordinary.”
Secondly, there is the rise of digital which no self-respecting lobbyist can afford to ignore. “It’s about being on all the time. You boot up in the morning or check your Blackberry and you check your email, you check Twitter, you check PoliticsHome and the BBC website and you see what’s going on, and you’re on for the rest of the day. And your clients expect you to be on.”
Thirdly, he highlights the integration of public affairs into other disciplines. “Public affairs is seen as a component alongside lots of other disciplines. We cannot have a dusty aloof attitude towards our clients which says we are the experts, we’ve got Erskine May tucked down our trousers and we’re coming in to tell you how the committee on statutory instruments works. People don’t want that.”
McLeod is clear that he wants to see greater diversity in the profession. “We can’t just have dragoons of young men in crumpled suits smelling of last night’s nightclub doing public affairs. We’ve got to have a real variety, because then you get insight, you get a bit of tension in the debate about how you support clients, you get richer advice.”
Nevertheless, he is adamant that a healthy interest in all things political remains a pre-requisite for a good public affairs professional. “You’ve got to be interested in politics, you’ve got to be curious. It does make you weep sometimes when you work with practitioners who have not engaged with that morning’s news – I just find it unreal.”
On his own approach to lobbying, McLeod declares himself a hard worker who “will always read as much as possible”. Speaking to PAN in the refined surroundings of the Gilbert Scott restaurant at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, he is also not afraid to admit that a good lunch is a key part of the lobbying mix.
“I’m very committed to my stomach… Long live lunch, we are on Earth to enjoy ourselves and I think the lobbying lunch will live forever – as it should. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have already worked a full day before you get to lunch. And you should work a full day after lunch. So maybe that bottle of wine has been replaced by a small glass in the modern age.”
While many top lobbyists will head to the Cinnamon Club or The Ivy Club for lunch or dinner, McLeod names The Academy on Lexington Street, Soho, as his favourite dining spot. With echoes of Frank Underwood, he says: “I wouldn’t say it’s the grandest venue… A dog called Heathcliff once bit me in it. It’s a just ramshackle, crazy place. So I’m happier there than I would be in some media club, partly because when I go there I know no-one from politics will be sitting next to me. So no-one knows what I’m talking about.”
Comparisons with the Machiavellian Washington-based House of Cards protagonist end there. Home for McLeod is the rolling hills of Derbyshire and he can often be found at Derby City’s Pride Park Stadium along with his son – and a certain former MP. “I go to most home matches, as does Geoff Hoon. From time to time we have a word, he’s a client of mine at Augusta Westland,” says McLeod.
How does he manage to switch off from politics and public affairs? If London restaurants and Derby’s football ground don’t always do the trick, then perhaps McLeod’s best escape route is his wife Wendy Holden’s bestselling novels. The couple have been together since university and McLeod is more than familiar with her books.
Preparing to get the Friday afternoon train home from St Pancras, he enthuses: “I read them all. I’ve got her next novel in my bag. Wild and Free is out next year and is in my bag now. I’ve got all sorts of ideas for suave, forty-something lobbyists to make occasional appearances.”
McLeod deadpans like a pro, but he seems to enjoy the idea nevertheless. With that in mind, Public Affairs News looks forward to reading about the high-flying public affairs consultant who advised the maligned banking boss and trained up the speaker of the House of Commons. The same character could also have negotiated the release of a company boss from a broom cupboard in Sheffield. Or would that be too far-fetched?