A champion of Liberty

Helen Dunne meets Guto Harri, shortly after he joined Liberty Global, parent of Virgin Media, in the newly-created role of managing director of external communications

A short time after joining Liberty Global as managing director of external communications, Guto Harri adjusted the pictures in its Hammersmith headquarters. He removed an anodyne work from the wall and replaced it with three clocks, setting the times to London, Amsterdam and Denver.

‘I have a journalist background. I like to show and tell. One of the first things that struck me was that there was nothing here that told you that you were part of the largest international cable company in the world, with a 30 year history,’ explains the 49-year-old. ‘It was funny how many people said Oh, that’s a good idea. It was very simple, cheap and symbolic.’

The clocks symbolised the strengths of Liberty Global. It may employ 35,000 people across 14 countries, but London is the home of Virgin Media, which Liberty Global acquired for $24 billion three years ago. Amsterdam represents Ziggo, the largest cable television operator in the Netherlands, which was acquired for Eu10 billion in 2014, and Denver is the base of John Malone, the billionaire entrepreneur who created Liberty Media in 1991, and is now Liberty Global’s chairman.

Harri says: ‘I go to Amsterdam every week, because that’s where the operational headquarters are, along with product development, internal communications and public affairs. And I’m off to Denver this week to meet with the chief executive Mike Fries and top executives.’

It was the chance to shape the narrative of Liberty Global that appealed to Harri. ‘When I was approached about this role, I thought of a posh shop, the concept of freedom and Liberty Media, which has nothing to do with this business. [Liberty Media’s international businesses were merged with UGC to form Liberty Global.]

‘This is a US-based business with a host of assets, like Virgin Media. But if you say to people that Liberty Global is the parent company of Virgin Media, they say Oh, you’re going to work for Richard Branson. He has nothing to do with Virgin Media: he sold it.

‘Investors know us well, as do analysts and the key financial commentators, but my brief is to craft a story for Liberty Global. We are virtually non-existent on social media, so I have to build our presence on different platforms, and to sharpen us up on LinkedIn and elsewhere.’

He adds: ‘We are not trying to make Liberty Global a household name. We are a global brand. But our people need to understand who they work for and what the company stands for, while politicians and regulators need to know we’re decent people who will bring something to the party.

‘Why should they regard as good news the fact that Virgin Media is now owned by somebody they have never heard of? Because Virgin Media, under Liberty Global, has £3 billion to boost the infrastructure of the UK.’

The role is a new one. 'There were some decent people in London and Amsterdam before and a terrific investors relations team in Denver reaching well beyond that brief,' says Harri. 'The operating companies, like Ziggo and Virgin Media, have first-rate comms teams but there is now an appetite to build a bespoke and focused team to tell a coherent and compelling corporate tale to a wider audience.'

Harri joined on 23 February, having left News UK, where he was director of communications and corporate affairs, at the end of last year, and recently made his first appointments. So within six weeks, you’re starting to build your team, I say.

‘I’ve spent two weeks on holiday since I joined,’ he corrects. ‘My boys are 14 now, and we think there will only be a few holidays left before they don’t want to be seen with us. We went to Vietnam. We packed everything into four backpacks – we didn’t make the six-year-old carry anything – and had a real adventure.’

So – correction – four weeks in, and the team is starting to take shape. Julia Hart, former director of global communications at paint and chemicals giant AkzoNobel, has been appointed vice-president of external communications, based in Amsterdam, while Rebecca Pike, a former BBC radio presenter, is to join as head of digital media. Harri had not known Hart previously, but, as a former BBC news presenter, was aware of Pike.

‘Most people are aware that you should not hire in your own image,’ explains Harri. ‘It is very tempting to think This is what I value and what I like, but one of the main things to do when recruiting is to find your own weaknesses and to hire people to cover those. You need to find a balance.’ Hiring an identikit team, he suggests, is a real weakness.

‘I like to look for true diversity, which does not just mean a good balance of gender,’ he adds. ‘At News UK, I would look around and think This is what a good team looks like. We had diversity of race, gender and age (I had one 70-year-old and one 60-year-old). I had a turban-wearing Sikh. It was crucial to me that we had diversity of outlook, experience and approach.

‘One of the people I have hired here has not done PR before, the other is an experienced PR professional, plus I have inherited one guy Matt Beake, who is a brilliant young man and couldn’t be more enthusiastic about more people joining.’ Beake, Harri says, is an expert in Powerpoint ‘which imposes structure on random thoughts’.

‘People in internal communications will be helpful in telling our external story, so now I have Julia, based in Europe, who can coordinate with internal comms but who also understands how to work for a lesser-known parent of well-known brands.’

Harri has also ‘put in place’ advisers, and is drawing on ‘somebody who is a first-class speech writer, who has helped to refine  our narrative.’

Ultimately, though, the Liberty Global communications team will remain ‘fairly small; I can’t see it reaching double figures,’ says Harri. ‘But that is a good discipline. I will recruit as many as we need to service journalists, social media platforms and the internal needs of our company without growing beyond that.’

It is also a ‘foolish counter-productive thing to hire sycophants, which may make life more comfortable initially. It is a fault of politicians. The best politicians are those who hire people who are extremely strong’.

When Harri arrived at City Hall in May 2008, as communications director for Mayor of London Boris Johnson, he ‘inherited a large team who had all worked for Ken Livingstone and were largely politically hostile’.

Other politicians would have replaced the 110 or so staff with supporters, but Johnson took a different approach. ‘He said If we can’t win them over, we won’t get re-elected. So we worked with a team who had been in place for eight years.’

Harri quit after Johnson was re-elected, moving to News International (now News UK) in May 2012, where he joined a company mired in controversy and accused of criminal activity.

‘When you go into a private sector company where the core of your strategy is to tell a story of change, acknowledging that the company has lost its way and needs to do things differently, it can be difficult for some people to swallow. Some of the team embraced that; some didn’t,’ says Harri. ‘Here at Liberty Global, it is more of a blank canvas.’

But he is also making his mark. ‘Some journalists in the UK say that Liberty Global traditionally offered ‘no comment’; no guidance, no nothing! Some stopped ringing. They wrote articles without any consultation. I am trying to send out the clearest of signals that we now have a brief to help.’

Harri recently hosted Liberty Global’s first journalist briefing. ‘We had five or six senior journalists who came for a lovely breakfast with a top executive for a background briefing. Liberty Global is an M&A machine. There is a formidable turbo-charged army of bankers and lawyers buying things, and with M&A transactions there is very little that you are allowed to say. But that doesn’t mean you can’t provide a framework and explain the corporate strategic overview.’

At News UK, Harri learned the value of local news. ‘It has been very clear to me for years that, in the Internet age, even a small piece in a local newspaper is of value. Among all the bad stuff on hacking, you would find when you Googled a piece in an obscure London newspaper about the chief executive weeding a communal garden [as part of the company’s volunteering initiative]. There are no small parts, only small actors.’

On his upcoming trip to Denver, Harri has arranged to meet a reporter from the Denver Post, the key local publication with  an average weekday circulation in excess of 400,000. ‘She tried to make contact with us through a generic email address,’ he explains. ‘When I found out, I contacted her.'

She was delighted to be invited in for a tour, a briefing with senior executives and a brief encounter with the chief executive Mike Fries.' But, having undertaken two challenging roles in a relatively short period, how does Harri find the energy to start from scratch again?  

‘You need to build an incredibly strong team who are capable of taking over your role: you hire somebody who will rightly replace you one day,’ he says. ‘I was very fond of and proud of the team I created at News UK, and it was hard to leave them, but I look at the picture of them on my wall. But the novelty of the new more than makes up for the challenge of starting from scratch again. This evening I am taking my new recruits to the River Cafe for team bonding. [Harri famously introduced the policy of Friday Wine After Wrk at City Hall.]

‘In any creative role, you always need to stay fresh. And it is very hard to stay fresh for a prolonged period of time unless you move on.’