not arrogant, just better

paul stallard's pr blog

#PR – Ask the experts: Dr Bill Nichols, founder of @WhiteoaksPR and course leader at Bucks Uni

Written by Paul Stallard

Dr Bill Nichols

Following my first #PR: Ask the experts interview with the inspiring Paco Underhill I have returned to the UK for my next interview. The next to grace this PR blog with their expertise is Dr Bill Nichols, my first boss in PR.

For those of you who don’t know, Bill founded Whiteoaks PR alongside Gill Craig, so he knows what it takes to start and build a successful PR consultancy. Since leaving the business he is now helping to prepare the next generation of PR professionals through his work at Bucks University.

I met Bill for a coffee recently. It was the first time I had seen him in almost a decade and I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with him and talking about where our careers have taken us since we last met. It then hit me that he would be a perfect person to interview as he can provide advice to those in the infancy of their careers as well as those who need help building and selling a business. Bill is someone who in the PR industry has seen it, done and got the t-shirt (although it is probably smartly tucked under a shirt tie and jacket).

I particularly like Bill’s reply to the question I put to him about what he would tell a younger version of himself. I would have liked to have seen how that conversation panned out! Enjoy.

Paul Stallard: Can you please introduce yourself to the readers of this PR blog and why they should be interested in your insight.
Bill Nichols: I guess because I’ve had the good fortune both to have a 30-year career as a practitioner and the opportunity to learn and reflect on what it all means in the Uni world where I am now Course Leader for PR and Marcoms in the business school at Bucks New Uni. Also on visiting faculty at Henley Business School where I completed a doctorate in client relationships!

Paul Stallard: How did you get into a career in the PR industry?
Bill Nichols: After a horror six months pretending to be a graduate trainee in the City (yes in banking!), I wanted to get into advertising but a recruiter steered me to a PR opportunity. The rest they say…

PS: Who was the biggest influence on your career?
BN: Sir Clive Sinclair who I worked for as client and later as his in-house head of publicity. Clive has his detractors but he always brought a passion for achievement to everything he/we did. Always aspire, I guess.

PS: Having worked for the company I never asked you – where did the name Whiteoaks come from?
BN: Er, it’s actually our house name. And yes there really are oak-trees in the front garden which pre-date the house which was built in 1900! Back in 1993 it sounded like we’d been around for ever.

PS: You founded and led Whiteoaks up until the point you exited the business five years ago. Did you achieve what you expected and what did you get the most satisfaction from during your time heading up the company?
BN: It was a fantastic ride in partnership with Gill Craig. There were many great moments and positives. An especially happy memory is the first time we ‘fired’ a client. We ended up absolutely Brahms… Seriously it’s seeing the great success of so many of our staff over the years in their subsequent careers. It’s a terrific buzz which I get these days from working with students and with other agencies to help develop their teams.

PS: How do you think the communications industry has changed since you started Whiteoaks?
BN: Massively on two counts. Firstly the tools and platforms have transformed. Go back to 1993 and the fax machine was still something special. Social media was a chat in the pub. We didn’t have our first email account till I think 1997. Secondly, the old strict divisions across communications are breaking down rapidly. Today it’s about getting a result rather than sticking say to conventional PR or advertising.

PS: What piece of advise would you give if you met yourself before you started Whiteoaks?
BN: Lighten up!

PS: You currently lecture at Bucks university. What do you think is the biggest difference between what students believe the PR industry will be like and reality?
BN: You might imagine they all have an ‘ab fab’ view. Actually not. The tough part is getting them to shift gear and to be able to multi-task in fast mode jumping from client to client. The transition’s akin to putting a learner driver into an F1 race. But you know the ones who are going to make it. They love it.

PS: How do you help your students to better understand the industry they will soon be embarking on a career in?
BN: We’re constantly engaging with the industry. Getting them to meet key players, work on real assignments, act as if they were in real agencies. Our focus is as much on what the Uni calls ‘employability’ (not a great word!) as the qualification.

PS: In the last month I have received over 35 CVs from people wanting to join Berkeley PR. Why should I choose a PR student over someone who has studied journalism or worked in an office environment for two years?
BN: You wouldn’t necessarily. Those are all relevant career starting points. But if it was one of my students I’d hope they turned up in your office with the degree AND extensive work experience.

PS: If you met your student self would you recommend that you start a career in PR or run a mile?
BN: I guess I’d structure it differently but 20:20’s wonderful! Overall, I’d certainly do it again. There are few careers where no two days are ever quite the same. And it’s such a rapidly changing profession, you’re always learning. I relish it even more today than I did 10 or 20 years ago.

Dr Bill Nichols can be contacted at (about to go live) or on Twitter @billnicholsPR