Phil Hall: 'Never close a door'

Getting the work-life balance right and always being ready to welcome back clients were crucial to entrepreneur Phil Hall's success.


Phil Hall: poacher turned gamekeeper

The internet has changed the media landscape beyond recognition over the past 15 years. Many traditional publications have seen revenuesplummet, forcing them to let go of staff.

At the same time, it's become harder for celebrities and businesses to manage their reputations in the online age. As a result, many journalists have decided to switch sides and move into public relations.

One successful 'poacher turned gamekeeper' is Phil Hall, the former editor of the News of the World. After being let go from an executive position at Trinity Mirror, Hall decided to set up PHA Media in 2005.

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Initially, he ran his business from a back bedroom, with his severance money from Trinity just enough to support him for a year. However, he rapidly started to accumulate clients. Some, such as Sir Paul McCartney, were the result of past contacts. Others came as a result of Hall sitting down andcold-calling what he terms "long shots".

Within a short period, he had added West Ham FC and several London-based casinos. Managing them successfully later enabled him to land Manchester City. This football expertise came in useful when he then worked on Qatar's World Cup bid.

Hall lists this as one of his "most memorable" experiences, since it seemed as though "the whole world was against us, but we ultimately helped them cross the line".

Other successes included a campaign against cuts to legal aid. As a result of PHA's work, these proposals have been delayed until after the upcoming election.

Despite his early contract wins, Hall did not simply assume that his new venture would be a success. Indeed, he says he "constantly worried about things" and treated each day "as a new challenge".

At the same time, he was "always confident that we could deliver for our clients". That belief has been rewarded with strong growth: from just two members of staff initially, the firm now employs 60 people. As staff levels have risen, PHA has moved from a small serviced office on a rolling one-month contract to progressively larger premises.

At one point, Hall took out a mortgage to buy a converted house in Marylebone, only to outgrow it within 18 months. The firm now occupies large offices in Wardour Street and has a turnover of £4.2m. Despite this rapid growth, Hall says he turned down repeated offers from banks to lend him large sums of money, noting that he preferred to "grow organically".

Hall thinks that the secret to being successful in PR is having "a good journalistic backbone". Instead of just "churning out press releases", PHA focuses on "sending journalists a smaller number of stories that will be of interest to them".

He has also paid a lot of attention to "getting the staff right", seeking those who have a "can-do attitude" and are "prepared to hit the ground running".

However, he also believes in fostering a "work-life balance", making sure that relatively early starts are balanced by a working day that ends at 6pm, in contrast to the usual industry practice of late nights.

More broadly, he thinks that entrepreneurs should "never close a door". Indeed, he can point to several cases where clients have parted ways with PHA for various reasons, only to return later or recommend his services to others.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri