Life in the Hot Seat


Paul Vallance (pictured at left) has always had a thing for nuclear physics and the science of the subatomic. But whereas others may find that working for the nuclear industry is already hot enough, Vallance holds one of its most challenging positions--one that places him at the heart of the controversy this field generates. As Head of Media Affairs at British Nuclear Fuels Ltd ( BNFL), he's the one who is right in the journalists' firing line when his company's name hits the headlines.

When it comes to nuclear power, BNFL has its finger in most of the pies. The international company is involved in the whole cycle of production and use of nuclear power--manufacturing nuclear fuel, generating electricity, managing nuclear waste, and decommissioning nuclear facilities no longer in use. And while the very concept of nuclear energy meets with criticism in our society, each stage of the process adds its own truckload of issues and controversies. Like any other nuclear company, BNFL is under intense scrutiny from the media, and one would expect that representing such a company to the outside world is less comfortable than, say, representing a chocolate factory.

So how does it feel to be in such a hot seat? "This is the best job in the world," answers Vallance unequivocally. Such enthusiasm is fuelled by his faith in the benefits nuclear energy brings to society. "I look at energy capacity, renewables, and carbon dioxide emissions as a physicist and scientist and this enables me to talk about it with passion to the media," he explains. He believes in a greater role for nuclear energy in tomorrow's world and sees his contribution to the advancement of nuclear facilities as one of the greatest rewards of his job.

As Head of Media Affairs, Vallance is in charge of coordinating the interactions of the press officers with the media across the 63 BNFL sites, themselves scattered around 16 countries. "My job is to enhance and protect the reputation of BNFL," explains Vallance. He is also responsible for briefing the chair of the company and the group CEO on media issues while reporting to the public relations director.

Still, a major part of his job is to communicate directly with the media in all its different forms and manage any emerging issues. "Every day is different," he comments. "One day you are talking about new nuclear reactors, the next day about the financial performance of a particular business. It is very diverse." But if he tremendously enjoys communicating, he warns that it is very difficult to take a complicated issue and simplify it for journalists without the facts being changed. "It is a very difficult balance to strike," says Vallance. "For example it's difficult to try to explain nuclear fission to somebody who doesn't know what a nucleus is." Another key skill he sees as a must if you want to be successful in such a job is the ability to build long-term relationships with the media. "Trust is very fragile," explains Vallance. "It takes years to build up, and one word to lose it."

But don't be too quick to brand Vallance's job as mere spin-doctoring. For him there is a very clear distinction between the way BNFL interacts with the media and a perhaps more common perception of PR--in his words, when people try, and manage, to manipulate public opinion. "We work mainly with journalists to try and present the facts," he explains. Of course they are the facts as BNFL sees them, "but by no means do we try to manipulate," he stresses. Although there is sensitive information that cannot be disclosed for obvious reasons, such as protection measures against terrorism, BNFL prides itself on always trying to be honest and fair, he asserts.

An incident that generated a lot of media interest in 1999 illustrates the point. "Japan recently bought unused nuclear fuel containing up to 5% plutonium," says Vallance. Because of data falsification on the part of employees at Sellafield, the Japanese refused the shipment and BNFL was forced to take it back. "We had to find a strategy to manage the media," continues Vallance. The choices were to sneak the ship back quietly, or to "explain this was a mistake, why it wasn't as bad as people think, and why it won't happen again." BNFL set up a press centre on the day the ship arrived and Vallance recalls that around 80 journalists turned up. "We got a knocking for the mistake but got proper, reasonable treatment by all the media, and I believe strongly it is because we didn't try to do it in secret," he concludes.

The nature of the nuclear industry is such that it must be prepared to face crisis situations. The company thus needs to have emergency plans and demonstrate to the regulators that these work. "We pretend that all the safety mechanisms have failed altogether, which is incredible, and rehearse how to recover the plan and what we would say to the media," explains Vallance. Needless to say, the pressure hits record levels on these days. "But you have to remember, somebody has to lead and appear calm, collected and make the right decision," says Vallance. "This is my role."

Yet this is not what Vallance finds most difficult in his job. "One of my greatest challenges is to undo some of the wrongs the antinuclear groups have made over the years," he says. Vallance feels that the controversy surrounding nuclear power stems from some people's ability to lead others to take a point of view that they would not otherwise take, had they known the full story. And with a history of cover-ups from the nuclear industry, he concedes that people may now be easily persuaded by antinuclear arguments. "So we have to see people and explain the facts," he says, so that they can make their own judgments.

This job also comes up with more personal challenges. Vallance says he sometimes finds it hard to balance the sort of career he's got, especially when it involves as much travelling, with his family life. "Any job in any company at a certain level means these days that it is difficult to spend as much time with people you would like to spend time with," he says. "But there are always some sacrifices to be made."

Vallance learnt all the skills on the job. After gaining a degree in physics and applied physics from Nottingham University, he went to Sellafield as a graduate trainee in the Health and Safety Department to become a radiation protection expert--a role he enjoyed tremendously because "there is such a diverse range of hazards and so many ways to control that everything is safe," he enthuses. But 9 years later he wanted to do something different, although still work in the nuclear industry. So he was delighted when an opportunity arose to become the personal assistant of the director of PR. "I thought it would be the sort of things I would like to do, and to my complete surprise I got the job," he says. After a couple of years he became a press officer himself and has climbed his way up the press officer ladder.

If being familiar with the company and its culture made his career change easier, so did his scientific background. "I think being a scientist helps in nearly every walk of life," he says. He refers to the logical approach scientists usually display when tackling problems, constructing arguments, or planning actions. "Scientists are also able to say things in a very short number of words and be very precise in their use of language," he adds.

However, there are instances when you'd better step back from your scientific background. For example, writing press releases may not come very naturally to a scientist used to writing the very differently constructed research paper. Also, scientists tend to argue using facts and figures. But this won't help if somebody comes to you saying they 'do not like nuclear power'. "You have to understand why," says Vallance, and you will only if you acknowledge that "people take a position from an emotional point of view."

So what are the qualities Vallance looks for in would-be press officers? You will have to be "honest and straight," able to admit to mistakes and say sorry, "treat people like you want to be treated," have lots of "common sense," and a "good sense of humour," he suggests. Although Vallance feels the trends in the job market are as bleak as the current economic climate, "in any field, if you are good at what you do, you'll get a good job."

To Vallance, media affairs in the nuclear industry are all about recognising that the things you say can be twisted by others. If you are able to get your message across in spite of these adverse influences, then you are made for the job. But most importantly, you must believe in what you are doing. "Find something you believe in and talk about it with passion," he says. But "also disbelieve it enough to challenge it," because that is what you will face from everybody else.

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