TAKING A STAND
Francis Ingham has never taken the easy option, but instead forged a career based around standing up for himself, for his organisation and for his industry. Brittany Golob and Andrew Thomas report on Ingham’s oversight of the PRCA as it celebrates its 50th anniversary
Photographs by Callum Kerr
Shortly after Francis Ingham took up the post of director general at the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), he contemplated asking for his old job back. More than a decade later, the place is nearly unrecognisable. Going from a staff of four to an international workforce with oversight of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO); the association is now the world’s largest PR professional body.
But at 16, the road to global domination – at least in the PR world – was not so clearcut. An troubled home life led Ingham to set out on his own as a teenager, living in a particularly rough hostel during his final years of school. His perseverance – and the provision of a fee assistance programme at St Bede’s in Manchester – led to an acceptance to Oxford where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
Parts of the Oxford experience were both rewarding and relevant to his later career, but other aspects were not as enjoyable. “You only spend 24 weeks a year doing the actual degree course; three terms of eight weeks each. And for the rest of that period, the holidays, everybody else goes home. Of course, I didn’t have a home to go home to. So I would spend over half my year basically alone in college accommodation, which wasn’t exactly a great deal of fun,” Ingham says. However, his roles at the Oxford Union as guest liaison and at the Conservative Association as press officer led to early experience in dealing with senior professionals, politicians and honoured guests.
As the PRCA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Ingham is spending a good deal of time on similar activities as the array of events, conferences and awards hosted by the association has increased during this anniversary year.
Though Ingham has only shepherded the organisation through the last decade or so, it was due to his experience and unique character that helped propel it to become one of the leading PR trade bodies in the world. That professional experience began soon – though not immediately – after securing his degree from Oxford. With the dream of entering politics, Ingham set out to become a MP’s research assistant, but this was 1997, and New Labour’s decimation of the Conservative Party’s majority wiped out any opportunities there. “I was actually unemployed for the first year after I left Oxford, which wasn’t how I’d expected life to go. And my first job was as the political advisor to the leader of the opposition, which sounds great, but it was the political advisor for the opposition on Enfield Borough Council,” Ingham says. “And I only got that job because I lied on my CV. Although in every presentation I do to undergraduates I say, ‘Don’t lie on your CV,’ in fact, I did lie on my CV.”
The disappointment at not securing a central office role was short-lived though, because Enfield’s opportunities allowed Ingham to make the post his own. He wound up as media director for three Parliamentary seats, ultimately helping the Conservatives take Enfield Southgate in the next election. This first foray into communications was a sidestep from Ingham’s ambition of becoming an MP himself, but it led him onto the path toward the PRCA.
His experience at Enfield, however, was to prove invaluable. Local government gave him an understanding of the way policy was formed, and led to his move to a member organisation – a three-year tenure as a policy advisor at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Ingham loved it. “It was a brutal and fantastic training ground,” he recalls. The excitement and access provided by the trade body reminded Ingham of his Oxford Union days and provided crucial experience in public affairs. “I was one of about 150 lobbyists, all of us intelligent, mainly young, men and women getting direct access to ministers. It was a really impressive and career-forming place to be,” Ingham says.
If his time at the CBI was when Ingham grew to love lobbying, it’s also the period during which he fell out of favour with his earlier dream of a Parliamentary seat. “I realised I didn’t really want to be an MP because the political process at a grassroots level is so incredibly boring,” he said of his brief sojourn into local politics.
What proved the fulcrum in his career, though, was his relationship with Lionel Zetter. Currently the MD of his own political consultancy and immediate past-chair of the PRCA’s public affairs group, Zetter was, in 2004, on the board of the Institute of Public Relations, the organisation that would later become the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). Ingham took a public affairs role at the IPR under Colin Farrington, whom Ingham found an inspirational leader.
It was a seminal time for the IPR which started taking its professional code of conduct more seriously, ultimately leading to it being awarded chartered status. Ingham was a key individual in attaining the Royal Charter. As his portfolio of responsibilities expanded, Ingham became assistant director general. It was just before the 2008 financial crisis that Ingham decided to leave the CIPR, after three years of service. Leaving the successful CIPR for the – at the time – somewhat downtrodden PRCA was an intriguing one, but it was a decision that has had a huge impact, on both Ingham and on the PR industry at large.
The move began as the last one had, with Zetter managing the recruitment process for a new director general of what was then called the Public Relations Consultants Association. Ingham sized up his position at the CIPR, determining correctly that Farrington would not leave his role for at least another few years (in fact it would be three), and to progress, Ingham would need to jump ship. Farrington also served as a valuable reminder to Ingham that “you’re only relevant for so long as you’re relevant. And people tend to like the position, not the person. When the position has gone, it’s easy to become irrelevant.” The decision to take the PRCA role was easy. What lay in store for him upon joining the organisation was anything but.
“I had no idea what a terrible state the PRCA was in when I took the job,” Ingham says. Its strong reputation and the reputation of MD Patrick Barrow hid most of this from the public eye. “The PRCA did seem to be a very professional, albeit quite a niche body. It was when I got there that I realised what a terrible state it was in.” He calls the PRCA Awards event that he attended in his second week with the association “the worst awards I had or have ever been to.” At the end of which, he considered turning back to the CIPR. “It was only pride that stopped me from doing so. Having decided to stick it out,” he says. “I decided to make it work and improve it.”
Today, some 11 years later, there is little that remains of that four- strong team in its stuffy office and its lacklustre events. It didn’t help that the financial crisis hit only a few months later, throwing Ingham’s transition from the CIPR’s lovely Georgian townhouse in St James’s Square to the PRCA’s dingy Pimlico base, into sharper focus. But Ingham handled it like he handled his years at St Bede’s or at Oxford, with a focused resolve. “I had the same pitch to everybody,” he says. “It was, ‘We were going to broaden membership. We were going to grow. We were going to completely remodel the membership offering. And, most importantly in retrospect, I said we were going to take a stance on professional standards.” That was the stake upon which the modern PRCA was built. It would be an organisation that would stand up for the communications industry; it might not win universal agreement, but it would fight for its members.
He worked tirelessly that first year. “I remember being so tired, that I would develop this involuntary twitch in one of my eyes.” Ingham says. Friend and fellow industry leader, Metia MD, Stephen Waddington, says Ingham’s tireless work ethic is a persistent trait. “Francis has been known to do back to back lunches to ensure that he never misses an important meeting. He has a relentless work ethic. We shared a flat in London for a couple of years. He rose at 7 am and attended industry events most nights,” says Waddington.
But that paid off in spades as the PRCA swiftly grew, shifting its awards from a Camden nightclub to a black tie, five-star hotel evening. It refocused on its training offering and developed its national conference. The PRCA then outgrew its Pimlico space, taking the opportunity to move to an airy Southwark office just before the surge of businesses flooded the area. On the issues front, the PRCA has achieved what Ingham set out to do by standing up for the industry. It fought the NLA in EU-wide courts on behalf of public relations and it pushed an ethics agenda through Bell Pottinger’s fall from grace.
But this growth drew the PRCA into what now seems an entrenched battle with the CIPR. Ingham is adamant that to him, it’s not a competition. He says, “It’s a matter of continuously growing the PRCA and continuously being more and more relevant to the industry. The issue with the CIPR isn’t that we have grown. We have grown and they haven’t over the years and the pecking order has changed absolutely.”
As the PRCA has grown, so there has been conjecture about his ultimate ambition for the organisation. Characteristically, he chooses not to pull any punches: “I think we would be a stronger industry if there was just one, unified body. And that is a standing invitation to the leadership of the CIPR.” A merger of that kind would likely lead to the end of Ingham’s tenure, he says, “I think the price of a merger would be me walking away. But, I think that would be a price worth paying.”
This growth-through-merging approach has already seen the PRCA gain operational oversight of ICCO, LGComms, the trade body for local government comms officials and, earlier this year, the Association of Professional Political Consultants. Now, with a growing membership and workforce expanding around the world, the focus is on the reputation not just of the PRCA, but of the industry itself. That has led to a year’s worth of headline events tied to the PRCA’s 50th anniversary celebrations. “We’re never going to be liked,” Ingham says of the industry. “We need to be respected. And I think we’ve done a lot of good work over the last 15 years or so to make the case for PR as a powerful tool. But I don’t expect us to have the affection of the British public any time soon.”
That said, Waddington offers a different perspective, “In the past 10 years, Francis has played a significant role in building the reputation of the UK public relations industry. Through his work for the PRCA he’s built renewed confidence in practice in government, public and private sector. Thanks to Francis’s leadership of ICCO this reputation is extending globally.”
Ingham’s personal drive hasn’t always won him friends. He points to his lonely years at Oxford and tough upbringing, saying, “I really don’t care if people don’t like me so long as they do respect me. And I am very happy with my own company.” But close friends and colleagues know otherwise. Matt Cartmell, former deputy director general of the PRCA, who spent seven years with the organisation, says, “He is the most ebullient and entertaining man to work for, with an anarchic sense of humour. Every day was a surprise. Francis brings a different approach to running a membership association. Maybe for some people, running a membership association could be seen as a retirement job, but with Francis, it was clearly the opposite. He brought such a huge level of energy. He was incredible, an inspiration to work alongside.”
There’s no standing still despite all Ingham and the PRCA have achieved. PRCA Russia has launched, Latin America is in the works, and further global expansions sure to be coming. “I have big ambitions,” Ingham says, but, he adds, “I try to do them one step at a time.”