Gorkana Insight & Analysis Team
There's no stopping Clarence Mitchell. He's in full flow talking about a subject he knows a thing or two about - the machinations of the British media.
"If there's a big story on the go I can watch TV and I can predict almost to the person who will be on which bulletin at which time...you know the rhythms of who will do what and how a story will develop. You know there'll be cameras at that hospital or that police station - the media runs on tracks just like any industry."
Listening to him speak with such conviction about the ebb and flow of major news stories, it's easy to see why he has become one of the industry's most high profile crisis comms experts. A seasoned journalist who earned his stripes working as a news correspondent -"in the early 80s working for the BBC I travelled with two, three passports at a time and I was parachuted in to help local bureaus in war zones like Bosnia and Northern Ireland, and fairly unpleasant situations" - he is now firmly on the dark side and has clocked up thousands of hours as a spokesman over the past five years.
Jettisoned in as the official spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann, the Leicestershire couple whose daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal on May 3 2007, a few days before her fourth birthday, he found himself thrust into the global media glare - "it was like being a reporter but in the reverse".
It was while he was director of the Cabinet Office Media Monitoring Unit that his life and "pinball career path" took an unexpected turn.
"I knew Howell James (the Government's then permanent secretary for communications) from when he was John Majors' political secretary and I said to Howell in various conversations: 'Look if ever there's a big story you need to send someone out on I wouldn't mind being considered.'"
When Madeleine went missing he was seconded to the Foreign Office because of his extensive television experience, and thought he'd be in Portugal for a fortnight (after taking over from another former journalist and senior government spokesperson Sheree Dodd). But five years on and Clarence is still the McCanns' spokesperson and now close friend - he carries a separate Blackberry to take calls related to the Madeleine case.
Stints at Lewis PR and Freud Communications followed before WPP came knocking last year. He joined Burson-Marsteller in September with a "roving brief" to provide advice and counsel where needed, open his bulging contacts book and join in on pitches.
He has worked on a wide range of accounts including ICOMP, an industry initiative that campaigns against anti-competitive practices online; the Skolkovo Foundation, an innovation centre founded outside Moscow; and he was one of the main media contacts when the Italian cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, ran aground in January killing 34 people.
Last week he was named head of Burson's public affairs practice and he seems to have made the switch to agency life without too much fuss.
"I've personally believed in all the situations I've found myself involved in from the PR side and I feel entirely comfortable and entirely happy supporting and messaging them - in the case of Kate and Gerry, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was having been a reporter was to be asked, in front of a camera, to express an opinion."
Clarence clearly gains comfort from being neck deep in a crisis - "I prefer to have a pressurised run where I can suddenly decided x, y and z needs to happen now" - and he is quick to give advice for any PR finding themselves at the centre of a media storm.
"All hell can break loose around you very, very quickly with lots of conflicting requests and lots of confusion and usually you have access to very poor and limited information. With the nature of 24/7 media as it is now, questions come at you thick and fast and all demanding accurate responses immediately and a lot of the time the situation is far more nuanced than that, with far more grey areas.
"On a personal level, you need to stay calm, you need to overcome any nervousness you may feel about the scale of what is in front of you. You need to break it down - that's the way I do it - and compartmentalise and prioritise the situation in your mind. What needs to be done, what's most pressing, who's on deadline?
"The idea of controlling the message is no longer valid but you can influence the message - your story will be told. If you don't get out there and tell it somebody else will and you won't like what they have to say. These days a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has even switched its laptop on, and as a result you need to be in fully corrective mode that much faster, you have to develop strategy more quickly and there's a need for speedy client sign off and that can sometimes cause frustration internally. But corporates can see how things are changing and if they don't work with their agencies quickly enough then they will suffer."
He says online should not be ignored but it is only when mainstream media engage that something becomes an issue.
"Even in this world of social media, the bulk of people still take their news and information flow from traditional mainstream media. A piece that appears in a broadsheet or on TV will have far more impact than a Twitter rumour. When traditional media traction takes place and starts to eat into an online narrative that's when alarm bells really start ringing for me.
"It's a cohesive ecosystem but you don't need to over-react to social media. You need to be aware of it."
There is a certain irony when we talk about social media - Clarence has made a conscious decision not to be on Twitter or Facebook because of what he calls his "online fan club", keyboard terrorists who denounce his every move.
"The hostility online at the height of my work with the McCanns was intense and it still is - there are forums out there dedicated to being anti anything I do and my reputation is traduced and I am libelled every single day.
"What surprised me was the viciousness and the bile and the downright inhumanity which was being spread by people who are very brave on a keyboard and under a pseudonym."
The 'nicest' thing his detractors have to say about him is that he's a media manipulator.
"I've had certain individuals picket meetings where I've been speaking, handing out leaflets in the street.
"When I was at Freud the offices were picketed by this so-called Madeleine Foundation which frankly is a disgrace and they were handing out a four-page leaflet saying 'Mitchell is a master media manipulator'. I showed that to Matthew Freud and said that's a pay rise if nothing else.
"I feel sorry for some of those individuals who feel so exorcised about what I'm doing. I'm not manipulating anything, I'm doing the best I can for my clients, be they individuals facing a family crisis or corporates who need a hand with something. It's simply making sure their voice is heard and heard as clearly and as effectively as possible in the modern media mix.
"And sure if getting their voices into places where they might not necessarily be heard - if that is manipulating the agenda then fine I'm guilty of manipulating. But I'm not. I'm just performing the basic role of being an advocate."
But he has this final word for his critics: "I've reached a plateau now. I monitor what's being said but I've gotten to a point now where I don't care."
His new role leading the public affairs team at Burson sets him up nicely for his future political ambitions. Fiercely Conservative, Clarence has hopes of becoming a Tory MP, inspired by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was MP in the local area covered by the Hendon & Finchley Times, the paper he joined as a cub reporter.
"We had lots of interesting stories - it was during the Falklands and it was during the miners' strike and I was sort of plunged in at the deep end. I found her inspiring as an MP.
"I've had lots of people and editors who have inspired me. My original editor in local papers, Dennis Signy, was a great influence in my early stages - he was always very supportive. He was a great old school journalist. My very first job was in a bank but I hated it. Dennis took me on because I was the only one who knew what the Press Council was."
Working in PR means Clarence is free to pursue his political future. He was on the approved Conservative Party list in the run up to the 2010 election but "didn't have time to find a seat". He is now back on the list and the candidate selection list begins next year ahead of applying for a seat.
"Central Office have told me that they see me as a potential south-east/metropolitan candidate. It's up to the individual associations of course to choose - some of them won't have Central Office foist someone on them just because they're on the list, others will welcome London input."
Whatever he goes on to do one thing is clear, Clarence will never be far from the action.
"I'm at my worst when things are quiet and there's not much focus - I'll think it's downtime and I'll relax."
Clarence was speaking to Celina Maguire, Gorkana Group Head of Consumer Community.