Journo intel: Oliver Shah, business editor at The Sunday Times on a new Covid concierge, lockdown winners and Sir Phillip Green
Our tireless media relations team spends a lot of time picking the brains of various journalist contacts. In this edition of ‘Journo intel’ we spoke to The Sunday Times Business Editor and author of Damaged Goods: The Rise and Fall of Sir Philip Green, Oliver Shah, to find out how things have changed for him and his team during lockdown.
What changes have you seen in the way you’re working?
Tech has worked very well for us so far during the pandemic, which has come as an unexpected surprise. A usual working week for my team is Tuesday-Saturday. Under normal circumstances, Tuesday and Wednesday would see us out and about having breakfast, lunches, and other meetings.
Obviously, this is impossible right now, so everyone is extremely reliant on existing contacts. The situation also makes it harder to establish new relationships. I personally believe that remote working can work, and I’ve found that my days are more intense. This is true for a lot of us, with many people unintentionally working more than they did in the office. The once-universal commute is now pretty much non-existent, so we can all wake up and start the day from the off!
What’s life like away from the office?
The Sunday Times has in fact brought a few people back to the office, although it has changed drastically. Things are so much quicker when there is a physical presence! Hand sanitisers are everywhere, there are red and green desks spaced out to enforce social distancing, and we even have a concierge in the lift to press the buttons.
The buzz and interaction of a newsroom is irreplaceable and a driving force for us as journalists, but for the time being it’s quiet. I go into the office Thursday to Saturday to put the paper to bed.
What’s the media landscape like out there right now?
It is a news-rich time right now, so ‘if you can’t make hay you might as well go home,’ as they say! Now is the time to dig in and deliver readers cutting edge stories. Sunday papers rely on exclusives and insights with lots of colour and details and although the daily papers are more consistently intense, Sunday papers build up toward Saturday and it becomes increasingly busy toward the end of every week.
The lifeblood of Sunday journalism is getting new information and intelligence from different sources. Deadlines are no more difficult than before, and it remains a matter of setting the agenda and getting ahead of things – though this is easier said than done. It’s a sign that the salmon are running, and you should be catching them! There’s more focus on digital now, print circulation numbers are off a bit, but digital subscriptions are up substantially. We also focused more on the app and online content, and we’re even seeing established readers start to switch.
What are you interested in?
The Sunday mandate is to look ahead toward what’s coming round the corner and use that to set the agenda. The debate is turning to the economy now and away from health. The furlough scheme has acted like a painkiller, but what will happen when it ends? Should we expect 10 percent unemployment for five years?
Key areas of interest for The Sunday Times are jobs, work, unemployment, debt hangover, and other matters that boil down to ‘how do we clean this mess up?’. Strategic support from individual companies would be great and makes for interesting reading.
Will things return to normality? Are there any opportunities following the crisis?
I reckon capitalism will return, but in the short term, people would be wise to trade in dividends and turn down high executive pay. The scale of the job destruction and permanent elimination of many roles, combined with corporate failure, will have a huge impact. Companies that don’t need to take advantage of bailouts shouldn’t, because the unwinding of public debt will be a generational issue.
Personally, I think RBS has done well and supported SMEs. Similarly, supermarkets have generally done a good job keeping supply chains going, while big tech companies will emerge in good health. Insurers have given themselves a bad reputation though for not paying out, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
There will be a significant shift to automation and unions will lose more power. As companies move towards automation, there will be a smokescreen for people who want to take on opportunities that they couldn’t otherwise. For example, we’ll see a lot off opportunistic M&A, and plenty of nips and cuts to the workforce.
Back in 2008, everyone said ‘we won’t carry this much debt again’, and ‘we’ll never be this asset light’. Three years later, the risk was back. Over the next few years, businesses should turn their attention to pay and balance sheets, and we have a lot of stories along those lines to come.
What has your experience of comms been?
In general, people have been great in emails. I’m looking for more public leadership, and I always want to hear from opinionated spokespeople: people who sit on the fence aren’t as interesting! In the long term, I’m dying to get back to face to face meetings, networking and events. It’s simply too hard to replicate the spontaneity and human spark online!
Same as always: good media relations is about knowing the publication, what they’re interested in and the journalist’s areas of focus. It is more difficult to network right now, so impromptu stuff is tricky. This is an unprecedented state for media, so it’s all about knowing the priorities and avoiding quirky but unfocused news.
We need optimism. There are lots of winners coming out of the crisis. Last month The Sunday Times profiled five small online businesses making hay. Tech companies like Moon Pig and other nimble operators are also coming through, making good money and creating jobs. Boohoo, Asos and the like will also prosper.
Have you spoken to Phillip Green!?
I can confirm I’ve heard from Phillip Green!
Having a B2B PR agency that spends time crafting interesting, relevant pitches is more important than ever before – take it from the national editors we’ve interviewed! Drop us a message today, to find out more.