Speaking to Kevin Murray is always a pleasure, not just because of his courteous demeanour, but because of his fascinating insights into how people think. It is hard to keep on the subject of his career, as the conversation takes so many diversions, from discussing how certain people are able to inspire, to the challenges of balancing work and family life. Family is extremely important to Murray and he is a proud grandfather of three children, the youngest of whom is just a few months old.
Kevin Murray’s career began in 1973, at the biggest English daily newspaper in South Africa. He worked at the paper ten years, with roles including chief crime reporter in what he describes as “the crime capital of the universe” and news editor. Murray’s earliest ambition was to become a vet, so he had focused on science subjects at school. School was followed by national service, and it was here, thanks to an aptitude test, that Murray discovered his true skills lay elsewhere – as a communicator. The army taught him other useful lessons too: “I was a bit of a wild child, but that year in the army gave me self-discipline. I also learnt the power of having such a compelling dream, you can’t ignore it.”
Another life-changing moment happened at London Victoria train station during a secondment to work in Fleet Street, five years into his journalism career: “I was in a queue for the train and I started speaking to a girl standing in front of me. We got married six months later, and have now been married for 35 years.”
Back in South Africa, Murray was headhunted to work for firm Barlow Road, the largest conglomerate in South Africa, where he was editor of its publications. This was followed by a stint as managing editor of Leadership SA magazine. In 1985, as his wife was homesick, Murray made the brave decision to move over to the UK, with no job to go to and two children to support.
Describing how his career began in Britain, Murray says: “With five offers of jobs, I took the one that allowed me to start a subsidiary company within a regional PR agency in Oxfordshire, as it was important for me to be my own boss. I had been used to being in charge of corporate brochures and publications, and before that I was used to leading as news editor. I say ‘leading’ as you can’t ‘manage’ a newsroom of 60 to 70 journalists.”
Roles followed at the UK Bayer Group, as head of group public relations and at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) as director of communications. This was at the time UKAEA was going through the privatisation process. Murray says: “this was a complex role, as I was in charge of all comms, change management and quality. There were lots of stakeholders to consider and I learnt a huge amount about how communications is about change. I was advising the heads of the business on issues of national importance as they tried to transform a government organisation into a successful business.”
In 1996, Murray was headhunted to become director of communications at British Airways (BA). Murray says: “This seemed like a dream job, as I had always wanted to head a British prestige brand. Unfortunately, I arrived at an extremely difficult time in BA’s history that included the launch of a new corporate branding that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously disliked. Then, CEO Bob Ayling issued extreme cost-cutting which set BA against the unions, culminating in a cabin-crew strike in 1997. I realised that my job there was being a corporate messenger for very unpalatable news, and was not a role where I was able to influence change. I fell out with Bob Ayling and was fired. The Sunday Times ran a BA-shoots-the-messenger headline, that caused my telephone to ring off the hook.”
After his experience at BA, Murray took his time to choose from the many offers, and ended up joining the PR consultancy Bell Pottinger in 1998, starting as senior consultant, and ending up as chairman. Last year, Bell Pottinger bought itself out of its parent group, Chime Communications. Murray decided to stay in Chime to found the PR agency the Good Relations Group.
As well as heading the Good Relations Group, Murray is well known in the industry for his book, The Language of Leaders, which is based on interviews with 70 chiefs in business to get their perspectives on communication in a modern world. Murray says this book as had “more success than I ever dreamed of. It has involved a huge amount of networking that has also been extremely beneficial to business.” Writing The Language of Leaders and his most recent book, Communicate to Inspire, has taken a large amount of free time and has demanded self-motivation, something he believes is a vital skill to possess if you want to succeed.
There is another key quality that is vital to success – having a clear vision. Murray has learnt this from his own career and from speaking to all the successful business people he has interviewed: “Leaders talk about having a compelling vision. Know where you want to get to. Be clear about what you want to achieve. It will power everything you want to do. Make sure you love what you’re doing, as the more passion you have, the more likely you are to make it work.”
Kevin Murray, chairman of PR firm, The Good Relations Group and author of The Language of Leaders
Written by Daney Parker