BLOG: Celebrating 40 years in journalism and public relations

If my maths are correct, it’s almost exactly 40-years to the day since I began work as a newspaper reporter.

I was planning to carry-out research and get together several photos and stories.

This plan was scuppered by tragic events at home in recent months.

But here’s a few thoughts.

I wanted to be a journalist from the age of 13. Learning to write in a journalistic style has served me well and while I now run a small PR consultancy, the skills I learned all those years ago remain valuable.

Those skills mean I have never been without work. While some people don’t appreciate the art of writing in a newsy, succinct way, there’s always a demand from others.

I was lucky enough to complete my NCTJ pre-entry course at a time when almost every town had a vibrant local newspaper. The office was at the heart of the community and almost every town had local news and sports reporters.

That’s now changed, and many communities are not so well served. A lot of people don’t seem to think this matters, but what price do you put on democratic accountability?

We’d attend the local police station every day, staff the magistrates courts and parish council meetings, visit the local sports clubs, and be available for anyone who wanted to visit our office at the heart of the town centre.

Talking of which, my face was a picture when Ken Barlow, formerly of the fictitious Wetherfield Gazette, walked into reception. Ken, aka William Roache, was doing a little moonlighting, writing Press Releases for an election candidate.

That candidate became the MP for Tatton and “enjoyed” a rather controversial stint at Westminster, before being ousted by former war reporter, Martin Bell, the man famous for his white suit.

Around that time, I also stumbled across a story which led to disciplinary measures against a Cheshire police chief inspector, amid allegations of questionable actions against black people and anyone with a Scouse accent. This led to questions in Parliament and an intervention from West Indian cricket captain Clive Lloyd who happened to live in the town (Wilmslow). It also led to a memorable headline in the Daily Mirror, Nick, Nick for Blacks and Wacks!

At the same time, I was spending Saturdays writing Rugby Union copy for the Manchester Evening News Pink Final.

Some people may find it hard to believe now, but I even took up the challenge of running the local half marathon and writing about it in the newspaper. I completed it in one hour and 59 minutes in case you are wondering.

Occasionally, I get asked which story caused the most chatter. It wasn’t anything to do with politics,or even strange goings on in Cheshire police. While working in the Potteries, I got wind of secret talks to relocate Stoke City from their famous old Victoria Ground to their current home.

I had three impeccable sources, but no on the record quotes. When the front page headline “City to move the goalposts” hit the streets, I was told by many I’d made it  up. As many of you will know, the move did happen. I can’t help but wonder what “noise” there’d be now, in the age of social media?

I even got invited on a fact-finding visit to Middlesbrough, with the Stoke City Chief Executive, a senior member of the development company, and the city council leader, to view the brand new Riverside Stadium, effectively the older brother of the stadium that emerged at Trentham Lakes.

Later, I specialised in political reporting. It’s good to live in interesting times and there’s probably a book in my stories from those days, if I ever get down to writing it. For now, I’ll just say there’s more dirty tackles in the political arena than on the pitch, very often “blue on blue” or “red on red”…that’s something many politicians pretend never happens.

Incidentally, I’m currently reading Rob Burley’s book, “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” It’s well worth picking up. Rob has produced many BBC political programmes, working with Andrew Neil and Andrew Marr.

Eventually, I left newspapers for the world of public sector communications.

It’s a strange job. Journalists think that you’ve crossed over to the dark side, while many colleagues in councils or the NHS seem to regard you with great suspicion, as they don’t trust journalists. On my first day in a council comms role, I was introduced to a very senior officer who looked at me and said “You’re f-ing joking”, as he regarded me and my journalistic background with huge suspicion. We eventually had a meeting of minds, I think.

The reality is that public sector communication officers are much needed as you are often there to give the view of the outsider looking in.

That means you need to have a very thick skin. On one occasion, I retreated from a high up’s office with the words “you’re a miserable bastard, Mr Howle” ringing in my ears. The miserable bastard was right, as the story played out as I expected, and my former employer was given a tremendous kicking in the court of public opinion.

After several years, I was determined to cut the employment safety net and Howle Comms was born.

All those lessons in journalism and corporate communications were invaluable.

I’ve worked with companies across many business sectors and mentored council communications officers on a freelance basis. I also have a passion for third sector PR and am proud to have worked with several charities, including supporting Sir Bobby Charlton’s foundation in its early days. I never did get used to the World and European Cup winner pitching up in the office, but he was always a delight to work with. A true gentleman.

There’s much more I could write about, but I’ve probably already gone on too much.

I’m happy to say that I’m still standing. Hopefully, there’s life in the old dog yet!

Photos: Running the Wilmslow Half Marathon, aged 20, and and a 2022 pic.