Interviews – Telecoms – Mike Caldwell

Mike Caldwell is director of corporate communications at the world’s largest mobile phone company, Vodafone AirTouch. Caldwell set up the company’s press office when he joined the company at its Newbury HQ in 1991 and now oversees a department of 12. He counts his career highlights as handling the public relations (PR) side of Vodafone’s epic battle to takeover Mannesmann earlier this year, along with masterminding the three year campaign to win planning permission for the firm’s new HQ in Newbury

Getting into PR

What qualities are you looking in a press officer?
The type of person is as important as qualifications in this role. I would put the personality angle above everything. We need confident people with a nice delivery manner, both in person and especially on the phone, because probably 80% of our work is down the line.

Some diplomacy is also needed. For young people, in particular coming into the corporate world for the first time, that is probably the most difficult part of the job. You need to be aware of what you can say to whom and how you say it to them, particularly if they are more senior than you in the Vodafone corporate pecking order.

It is a high pressure job in the sense that your name is the one that’s going to be quoted in the newspapers. So you can’t be a worrier. You’ve also got to be self-motivated. It is not a department where somebody is sitting on your shoulder all the time telling you what to do.

We need creative people, who have ideas and are capable of pushing them forward and doing it on their own. You are expected to build your own contacts up externally, but particularly internally.

What advice would you give graduates thinking about embarking on a career in PR?
I would encourage people to get into a job, any job, as quickly as they can. If they can’t necessarily get into the area they want to straight away, then doing something on a broadly similar line isn’t a bad thing. They could probably do that for a year or two without prejudicing their chances.

Anything with sales, marketing, or talking to people-type jobs is reasonable experience for moving into PR. Particularly if you don’t know what you want to do.

There is no straight way in. The key thing is getting the first rung on the ladder and getting that experience under your belt. But clearly if we are looking for a more senior person, we are looking for somebody with experience.

How Caldwell got into PR and came to Vodafone

What’s your own background?
I did a law degree and worked in private practice for a while, but didn’t really enjoy that. I decided to try working for a large company and I got a job with Boots. I did 10 years there, six years as a lawyer, and then as a PR manager and was eventually made head of corporate affairs.

In 1991 I was headhunted to set up the press department for Vodafone, who I had never heard of. Then we had 600,000 customers – we now have 53 million.

What attracted you to the company?
The timing was right. I was 38 and ready to move. I would have ended up as corporate affairs director of Boots, but it would probably have taken me 10 years and I wasn’t prepared to wait. I came to Vodafone as corporate communications manager. I did that for seven years and was made a director last year.

The job: daily routine, challenges and highlights

What does your job involve on a day to day basis?
I am head of the department that deals with our media relations and public relations around the world.

The job involves talking to journalists on any subject related to Vodafone AirTouch – from the size of the management team through to our employment policies, financial results and anything and everything in between.

Me and my team of 12 spend half our time manning the phones and the rest creating stories for the media to write about. It’s a pressured job in the sense journalists are working to a deadline and want answers now. We have a good reputation for being fast and speedy on our feet. Whoever picks up the call from a journalist tries to deal with the enquiry and only refers it on if they really need to.

What are the main challenges of your job?
Not letting journalists trip you up. For every argument you make there is a counter argument, whatever the subject matter. And you have to be very aware of the sensitivities of issues.

We also need to make sure we get our share of voice in the media. It’s a very competitive market in the UK, there are four operators, soon to be five when third generation (3G) mobiles come along and we all have similar types of stories. Our job is to make sure, as a market leader, that we don’t just get business stories used, but also get our fair share of human interest stories.

We also produce a UK magazine called The Voice, which is lighthearted, newsworthy, gossipy and bright. There are phone numbers in there so people can let us know if they’ve got any news that might be of interest.

The challenge for the department’s younger members of staff is that they have access to the most senior people in the Vodafone group. They must be able to go into meetings with really quite senior people and hold their own. Our department has the right to phone senior managers and say ‘what is our position on this?’

What has been the highlight of your career?
My biggest personal highlight was leading a campaign to get planning permission for our new headquarters. It was a tough two and a half year, very high publicity campaign locally. We won by one crucial vote. It was a most exciting night after three years work.

More recently being involved in the Mannesman takeover. There were four of us internally who were seconded for three months totally doing Mannesmann communications work. I don’t think the level of what we have achieved has even sunk in yet. It was the first corporate takeover in Germany and the world’s largest ever takeover. It has moved us from being a top 10 company in the UK, to being the biggest company in Europe (by market capitalisation).

The company generally gets a good press. What’s the secret of your success?
Business-wise we are lucky. We’ve a good story to tell and we work in an industry that is very young, but is massively growing around the world. There is always something new happening both on the mobile phone scene in general and the Vodafone AirTouch scene in particular.

Vodafone company culture, Mannesmann and 3G mobiles

What’s the company culture like here?
Because of the way Vodafone has grown up here in Newbury, we have 67 different buildings. Some of which are small, some quite large housing up to 400 people. All of those buildings have their own sub-culture.

One of the big challenges, when we move in to our new head office in two or three years time, will be keeping the best of all the little sub-cultures, while having all the benefits of working in new offices with the latest equipment and all the rest. This will be the most fundamental human resources change we have ever made and will be a hell of a shock to the system for a lot of people.

We operate relatively informally, though we have to dress ‘office presentable’ because we see people from the outside world and often don’t know who we are going to meet each day.

All of us within Vodafone have one thing in common which is a ‘this can be done’ mentality. That is why we’ve been able to move faster than anybody else in the UK and has helped us stay ahead of the game.

Where has the Mannesmann takeover put the company strategically?
We are now far and away the leading company in the world in mobile communications. Just on our market cap at the moment, we are five times larger than BT, which was much bigger than us when we started. We are something like the sixth or seventh largest company in the world (by market cap).

Our aim is now to be the largest company in the world and to knock Microsoft off the top spot in the next five years. The speed of (growth in the telecoms) industry is just so fast. There’s no signs of the growth stopping. The challenge we have over the next few years is managing the business as it grows further.

We have a lot of local competitors in the UK, Orange particularly. Orange is going to be the number two operator in Europe. I guess over the next two or three years they’ll emerge as a very strong competitor.

Vodafone spent £6bn on a UK 3G mobile licence. How difficult will it be to recoup the money?
We will do so over a period of time. The potential range of services 3G can offer will make the current generation of phones look as old fashioned in five years time as the mobile ‘brick phones’ from 1985 look now. People will pay for that. There are all sorts of uses we haven’t even thought of yet that in 10 years time we’ll be saying ‘how ever did I manage without that?’ We are only in the first stage of the 3G mobile industry.

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