Toby studied History at the University of Cambridge before a 23-year career in newspapers, working for national UK titles. He then moved to working into Public Relations. Toby is a consultant to the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme. We caught up with him to find out more about his career, what excites him about quantum and advice on pursuing a similar career path.
What inspired you to become a journalist and subsequently a Public Relations (PR) & communications specialist?
I wanted to be a journalist for as long as I can remember. It came sometime after I passed on being a new kind of super hero, which was around the age of six or seven I think!
It was never war zones and celebrities for me (not entirely unrelated experiences, colleagues would often suggest). The other sort of reporting is either ‘news’ –reporting fires or fetes – or to specialise in a particular area, such as technology. The rules are the same: facts, in the right order, a compelling story and plain language. I was taught to be understandable to an intelligent 12-year-old. ‘If you can’t do that,’ an editor once told me, ‘’then you haven’t understood the story properly.’ It certainly exiled jargon and generalisations. Often stories for a reporter begin with a press release and so I learned through osmosis a lot about the PR side of things. In particular, how the best PR sells and prioritises, grabs attention but is accurate and – crucially – is relevant to the reporter and their needs. It thinks about audiences.
You have been a foreign correspondent, based in New York, but also focused on two media areas ‘transport’ and the ‘environment’ in the UK. Now you are now working on quantum. What interested you about this field and encouraged you to get involved?
Quantum is mind and soul expanding, captivating and enthralling. But my chance to get involved happened through conversations with a friend from the Royal Institute of Navigation. I was soon spending a lot of time looking at YouTube videos.
I was hooked and very fortunate to be introduced into the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, where I have been for the last four years. And what an enormous privilege it is – never less than fascinating. It is also great to be part of the excellent quantum programme communications community.
A lot of PR can be about simply promoting products, but the pleasure of quantum is how utterly transformative it will be. It’s not so much about products as about prospects. And helping people who are not involved to appreciate the applications and benefits, unlocking the science and possibility into clear stories for a wide audience is just hugely satisfying. I am still that 12-year-old. It helps to have been a reporter. I know the pressures, particularly on national media titles where every specialist has to choose what, and what not, to cover. Nearly everything presented at their level is a viable story. That is why building trust and personal relationships with individual reporters is absolutely crucial. Why is my story the most important? The ability to pitch persuasively, plausibly and fast is a vital part of PR . You have a few seconds and one line of email to grab the attention of reporter. And please do not expect an attachment to be opened. You had better know your subject, too, because at the national media level, they will. Credibility can be lost in an instant through subject ignorance and hype. If you are lucky, the pitch will be followed by questions, a grilling even. Be prepared to think fast.
How did you find the transition from a humanities background to covering quantum, which most non-specialists would find intimidating?
I like asking questions, so I just keep doing that until I understand something. I think it’s the same technique whether trying to understand the origins of the Hundred Years’ War or how an iPhone works. Journalism and PR both use that same toolkit. The key is questions until comprehension. These ones: what, who, why, when, how and where. In other words: ‘what is the most interesting aspect to this story? Who is it going to impact? Why should anybody care?”. With Quantum, for example, it helps to get beyond the fabulously distracting science to what the application will be and, importantly, when. Language is just as important whether writing about a football match or a breakthrough in reducing quantum computer error rates. Fortunately, a wonderful thing about the quantum community is that many people from different disciplines can explain their work well to people like me.
The UK has invested massively in its National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP), and yet many of the stories that attract the media seem to be focused on developments abroad. Is there a gap that needs to be filled in communicating advances in the field in the UK and, if so, where does your role fit in?
It may sometimes feel like that. But really there is just more of ‘abroad’ than there is UK! In fact we are a quantum powerhouse and our biggest successes do get proper media coverage. The UK is now recognised by specialist reporters as one of the top global players thanks to the unique programme and its collaboration between industry, academia and government. Our research capability is recognised as second to none. We also have a rich and deep engineering tradition, which is going to be crucial to the science into stuff and will mean more media interest. Don’t forget, quantum is still mainly a work in progress towards commercialisation, so the wide public impact and interest is inevitably not quite yet there. But it will be. And soon.
Meanwhile, media do understand that by other key metrics we are leaders globally. The UK now attracts more venture capital and start-ups than anywhere else in Europe. In the democratic world, only the US has a bigger programme. A practical PR difficulty is simply that the programme is made up of many different parts moving at different speeds. There is no single central voice that speaks for it all, required to balance its interest and thinking strategically about how to express the combined programme as an entity of entities. The NQTP is not a corporation. In practical terms, PR just sometimes slips through the cracks. For small spin out companies, it is not a priority and for government bodies quantum is just one aspect of what they do. And university PR teams are also stretched. But if it were seen, even notionally, as a corporation, there would perhaps be a director of communications responsible for treating each element of the programme as a division, but also drawing from those elements key stories that benefit the programme as a whole. One might say that one weakness comes from the NQTP not being able to answer this question: who does a reporter call if they want to ask it a question?
What excites you most about quantum technologies and is there a particular aspect that you are especially excited to see commercialised in the years to come?
Yes! The idea of cameras that can see around corners and through fog! It feels liked magic. And quantum computing is like a window into an once unimaginable human future. Hugely exciting, and all so close. One of the reasons communicating technologies is such fun is that ‘wow factor’.
What is a typical day as a journalist or PR & Communications Specialist like?
In just three words: Fast moving, flexible, unexpected. The best ones involve conversations, planning and the satisfaction of writing a good story.
What experiences and transferable skills do you think are important for someone who wants to hold a role in journalism or PR & Communications to obtain? Any advice?
Clear communication skills. Get work experience. Or at least speak to someone who is a journalist or already in PR. Find out more about the daily reality.
Journalism is a lot of fun, but you need to get a buzz from ’news’ and deadlines. It is also absolutely not a requirement for someone going into PR, which involves many other skills. Above all, PR is about reputation management, with securing media interest a key part. Journalism is not about managing reputations. In fact, it is more about challenging them! I had a great newspaper life, exciting, dramatic, bizarre and wonderful. But it could also be stressful, challenging and disruptive (and not always in a good way). I was in New York for four years and did interview celebrities, but also was also there for 9/11. I dealt with disasters and drove the wrong way into a hurricane because the job required it. I wouldn’t want to swap it for quantum.
What advice would you give to young people interested in taking up a role like this?
Give it all a go. Get some experience and information. Talk to people who do it. Try and get an internship in a PR agency or newsroom. This will give you a sense of which, if either, is right for you. Then ask one question: “am I enjoying this so much that I’ll even work late?” You need the answer to be: “Yes”.