Tabloid editor, key Downing Street figure… jailbird. Andy Coulson has a CV like no other – but that experience gives him an edge
When it comes to crises, Andy Coulson has ‘created them, managed them and lived them’, he tells Spear’s.
This, after all, is the ‘Essex boy who went from Downing Street to Belmarsh Prison’, as the Telegraph delicately put it in 2015. The most publicised aspects of Coulson’s life are as follows: having become editor of the News of the World at the age of 35, he went on to be director of communications in David Cameron’s Downing Street in 2010, only to resign less than a year later after allegations of phone hacking surfaced from his time at the paper.
In 2014, he was found guilty of a charge of conspiracy to intercept voicemails and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Today we are not discussing Coulson’s own reputation – but what he does to burnish and protect the reputations of clients of Coulson Partners, the firm he founded in 2016, which focuses on corporate strategy, reputation management and communications for CEOs, founders and other leaders.
His past, however, does cast this work in an interesting light.
‘As someone who has been poacher, gamekeeper and, for a while, game… that gives me and the people that I work with a unique perspective as trusted advisers,’ he explains over Zoom. ‘My experience is a value. You either want advisers who have been up and down the hill a few times or not. If it’s the former, then I think we’ve got something to offer.’
The firm provides ‘frank’ advice to its clients. He will not reveal the identity of any of his customers – even off the record. Trust, he says, is ‘the absolute key to good advice’.
The other ‘partners’ in Coulson Partners include Jon Steafel, a former deputy editor of the Daily Mail, and Susan Adams, a former head of strategy and policy in the Rothschild Family Office.
‘You need people with a view but without an agenda, and who aren’t afraid to get things wrong,’ says Coulson.
‘Between us, we understand exactly what makes media, government, politics and public affairs tick.’
His career has been shaped in large part by his work with Cameron. After becoming Conservative Party communications director in 2007, Coulson went on to become a lead strategist in Cameron’s 2010 general election campaign and later director of communications for Downing Street.
‘In political leadership, you are constantly carrying the history of your party, both recent and long since passed,’ he says.
Coming into government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the administration had the difficult task of bearing the weight of the past while also ‘trying to modernise’ government.
‘Suddenly we had both history and another party running alongside us, which was a unique situation from a comms point of view,’ he recalls.
To illustrate his point, Coulson invokes the aftermath of the famously jovial Rose Garden press conference (‘widely seen as a success’, he assures Spear’s) where the newly minted prime minister Cameron and deputy PM Nick Clegg set out their stall. After the press conference, the Lib Dem and Tory advisers broke into separate briefing groups, leaving Coulson at the back of the room thinking: ‘Man, this is untenable.’
‘I brought both groups together and I said, “Look, we are a coalition government, and although we have to have room at certain times to operate independently, around [party] conference for example, in the main we’ve got to work together.”’
It’s easy to see the parallels with managing HNW families. Many of the private and family offices the firm works with are dealing with intergenerational issues, ‘building on the past and constructing something for the future’, he says.
The issues that HNW families must face can be ‘really tricky, really difficult,’ says Coulson. ‘Because there is a lot of emotion involved. It is about numbers, of course, but actually it’s much more about people.’
Another group grappling with similar issues is Boris Johnson’s government. In less than a year, it has gone from winning an 80-seat majority to polling behind Labour – a slump that most commentators have attributed to its handling of the pandemic.
For Coulson, good government communications are about ‘consistency’ and ‘believability’.
These can get warped in politics because of what he calls the ‘disease of don’t know’ – the inability of politicians to recognise the value of admitting that there are some things they don’t know.
‘That, I think, is one of the reasons why perhaps things haven’t gone as well as they might have done with regards to the pandemic handling, because government had been too quick, I think, to try and look as though it’s got the answer all the time,’ he says.
One answer, he suggests, could be openness.
‘There is value in being more transparent, to say, “Look, there are things we know with certainty, there are lots of things that we have a view on and that we’re working really hard to understand better than we do, but we’re not certain about. And then there is the stuff we haven’t got a clue [about], right? Because how could you really know at this stage?”’
As well as exercising his political muscles in his current job, Coulson is still able to scratch his ‘journalistic itch’ with his podcast, Crisis What Crisis?.
But it’s interactions with clients that remain at the core of his work: ‘Whether I’m sitting with one of my clients now, or when I used to be sitting with the prime minister, the principle is exactly the same: when somebody trusts you, you’ll be asked for your advice, and that’s a wonderful place to be.’