A View from the Press Office
“There’s no such thing as spin”
Now Head of External Communications at Quilter which manages over £100 billion in assets, Tim Skelton-Smith has come a long way from promoting garden benches at B&Q. Quilter is one of the UK’s leading wealth managers and this year’s best retirement provider according to the Money Marketing Awards.
Tim has crafted their corporate message through mergers, listings, and the financial crisis. He took time out to talk to PressChioce about the importance of being cynical, how to navigate commenting on politics and his latest quest to climb Three Peaks.
PressChoice: The company that makes up Quilter has existed in various iterations, under different names and brand identities. You’ve been there through a lot of those changes, how has that been?
Tim Skelton-Smith: It’s been a really exciting journey. It’s felt like I’ve worked for a few different businesses. When I first started, we were largely made up of European life businesses and then at one point we were part of the South African financial services conglomerate Old Mutual. It was a big change when we shifted from being a subsidiary to listing on our own, we had to grow up as a business. A lot of people have worked here for a long time and really care about the customer, that’s what makes the business tick.
As a communications professional the listing was an interesting experience, particularly because we did it at speed. Things are more open when you’re a listed business. You give out information in reporting periods that might not have otherwise been scrutinised so, you’ve got to be prepared. Messaging is a balancing act as well. You position information to analysts and the national press differently so that it’s understood and granted the right perspective.
PressChoice: And how do you negotiate that balance?
Tim Skelton-Smith: It depends on the information you’re dealing with. If it’s positive you want to make sure that it gets due attention, so we employ strategies such as granting exclusive access to make sure that information doesn’t get lost in the noise. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a reputational issue - and we haven’t had many – you’ve got to be open and honest with the press. There’s no such thing as spin if you ask me. It’s better to front these things up, for that’s where you gain trust and respect. Your job in PR is not to hide things away but to make sure they’re well expressed.
PressChoice: It’s interesting that you mention being open and honest with the press. We run a trust tracker here at PressChoice and we’ve found that, since the pandemic, business journalists have grown increasingly sceptical of the information put out by companies. How far do you think that’s fair?
Tim Skelton-Smith: Haven’t journalists always been like that? It’s their job to hold us to account, really, I’d be worried if they weren’t thinking like that.
I promote a healthy cynicism even in my own team. We act as the conduit between Quilter and business journalists so it’s important that we meet any internal drinking of the Kool-Aid, with a sense of reality. That’s the best way to produce believable and trustworthy content.
PressChoice: In that role how do you manage your spokespeople?
Tim Skelton-Smith: There are different ways of doing it, some businesses employ a lot of former journalists as spokespeople. We do a bit of that, but we also put a lot of people forward to speak on the area that they work in day-to-day. They’re really credible and, no offence to journalists, but I think that they give a deeper view. The press has direct access to some spokespeople but a lot of the time it’s quicker for them to just to get in touch with my team. It’s our job to understand the angle of a story so we may even offer a better insight in our answers.
PressChoice: We’re speaking just after the shock return of ex-Prime Minister David Cameron to government. Politics dominates headlines, that’s never been truer. Do you think it’s wise, as a business, to comment? How do you balance the danger of your company being politicised against missing opportunities if you don’t get involved?
Tim Skelton-Smith: As a business you’ve got to be in those debates - even if, like us, you don’t have a political persuasion. There are clear rewards, particularly if you’re representing customer’s voices, and it’s a brilliant way to get press coverage. We put forward data around big stories. For example, we got hold of some on the impact of mortgages following the 2022 mini-budget. We’ve had front pages that way. The team is careful though not to stray into sounding like a political PR team. It’s a fine line but we walk it carefully.
PressChoice: Has the cost-of-living crisis changed your approach at all?
Tim Skelton-Smith: As a business we’re very aware of not appearing tone deaf. We’ve all seen ads out and about where you think, how did that happen? In a business there’s always a risk of naval gazing because you have to be quite inwardly focussed on your work. It’s the role of my team to provide the outside perspective. We’re almost paranoid about it. Hopefully we don’t drop a clanger after this interview goes out but we’re pretty attuned to what’s going on.
PressChoice: You mention the word “paranoid”. Especially in the social media age one mistake can so affect a company’s standing financially and reputationally. What effect do you think that environment has on comms as an industry?
Tim Skelton-Smith: It’s a challenge for marketing in particular. It’s their job to make the business stand out, which is increasingly harder to achieve, plus their role is less focused on what’s happenings in the press. At Quilter there’s a lot of dialogue between our teams to make sure we’re looking at lots of different perspectives. You can get really worried about it but really, it’s about living the brand you’re representing.
PressChoice: You’ve truly risen through the ranks in your team. How do you feel about being a leader?
Tim Skelton-Smith: I enjoy it and it’s important to make it fun for my team. I demand results, it’s a high performing team, but it’s supportive at the same time. I think those two things can coexist. Communications is an area of the business that others share their opinions of so while remaining diplomatic, I’m protective of my team.
PressChoice: You’ve also worked in fast-moving consumer goods and for a trade association, TheCityUK. How was that and what do you bring from that work into your role now?
Tim Skelton-Smith: I started off at the B&Q head office. It was strange, someone would stand up every morning and read out the weather forecast because it had such a big impact on sales. I learnt about brand activation there. We did lots of sponsorship deals, which was good experience.
After having worked in financial services for a while I ended up at TheCityUK. It was born out of the financial crisis, so it was a really difficult time, getting beaten up every day trying to rebuild the reputation of financial services. We were everywhere from Brussels to Newsnight. It gave me a really good taste of public affairs and crisis communications which I hadn’t had before, and I take that a lot into my role now.
PressChoice: What’s the future for financial services communications?
Tim Skelton-Smith: There’s someone on my team who’s really excited about AI. I don’t think it’s that helpful at work now, but it will be in the future, and I’m not scared of it.
PressChoice: What do you like to do for fun?
Tim Skelton-Smith: I’m quite involved in sport. I run a kid’s football team, it’s competitive but good-natured.
I’m also preparing to do the Three Peaks Challenge as well at the moment, that’s where you climb the highest peaks of Scotland, England, and Wales in 24 hours. I’m dreading it but I always like to have something crazy on the go to raise a bit of money for the Quilter foundation – it’s type two fun, it feels brilliant once it’s finished.
PressChoice: Finally, what advice would you give your younger self?
Tim Skelton-Smith: Back yourself a bit more. When you’re junior it’s easy to think that you haven’t got things quite right when, maybe, you have. The culture of financial services has changed a lot from when I first entered the industry. We have a good culture of challenging up now whereas there was more jargon and putting you in your place before.
Tim Skelton-Smith, Head of Communications at Quilter (LinkedIn )
was talking to PressChoice writer Isabel Donaldson