The first thing Stephen Lotinga does, as I put my phone on the table between us to activate the voice recording app, is to do the same with his own device. “Do you mind?” he asks, motioning toward his phone. “Sorry, but I’ve been in this game far too long not to.”
Indeed he has. “The game” the new Publishers Association c.e.o. refers to is Lotinga’s past which has largely been in the political sphere, including as senior public policy adviser for PR powerhouse Bell Pottinger, but mostly in various advisory and communications roles for the Liberal Democrats, culminating in a position in the very centre of government as Nick Clegg’s chief spin doctor in the last year of Clegg’s spell as deputy prime minister.
If you are the type who thinks “Westminster spin doctor” and immediately conjures up the image of Peter Capaldi’s sweary rottweiler Malcolm Tucker of “The Thick of It” fame, you will be disarmed by Lotinga. He is not unassuming - he is well over six feet tall with a presence that can fill a room - but is measured and thoughtful on policy questions.
He is also just a month and a half into his role when we sit down to talk, and a good chunk of his first few weeks has been spent gathering intel. He says: “I’ve been enormously fortunate that my predecessor [Richard Mollett] left the PA in very good shape and I inherited a strong team. But I think the first part of my job had to be to go out and meet our members, those people with vast experience in the industry, and talk to them about how they think and feel in regards to the PA and what the challenges they are facing.”
Part of the reason he is doing this is that he hopes to make the PA a more efficient machine. “My guiding principle to what I am doing for the PA is to provide value for money,” Lotinga says. “I mean that for every single member, however big or small they are. There are members who spend a lot of money with us - they need to understand there is a purpose for that, a value for that. But we have to communicate that to even the small businesses that are paying several hundred pounds [in membership fees]. Having run a small business myself in the past, I know that every single penny counts. Frankly, if you are delving deep into your pockets to pay into a trade body, you need to have an idea what it is for.”
He foresees his PA broadly focusing on three planks: influence, insight and access to services. By influence he means the PA’s campaigning voice for the industry in the wider world and its lobbying in Westminster and Brussels - ”it is something we already do well, but we cannot rest on our laurels and there are areas we can improve on”.
Insight includes the market statistics the PA already provides, but Lotinga believes the trade body must expand its remit in this area: “We will also seek to explain to [members] how changes in policy in the wider world are going to impact on their business. An example at the moment is the apprenticeship levy—how we are going to shape that as an industry? How can we ensure companies that are paying into it benefit? How can we create common industry standards?”
Lastly, and perhaps crucially with his eye on value for money, Lotinga says he wants to spend “a lot of time” on improving PA members’ access to the services it provides.
He explains: “There are a whole host of things we are doing at the moment, some of which some members know about, but some don’t; some which members choose to use, some they don’t. I want to look at that and what sorts of services we will need to provide in the future. To do that I need to understand much more from our members: where they are going and what business models they are going to be operating in the future.”
Big stage, big issues
This year will be Lotinga’s first London Book Fair, arguably one of the most important ever for the PA. With its close ties to LBF, the PA always has a prominent role at the fair, but this is ramped up considerably in 2016 with the global industry’s crème de la crème gathering at the International Publishers Congress the day before LBF proper opens. Lotinga’s government contacts have no doubt helped lure culture secretary John Whittingdale to speak. He says: “As the first cabinet minister in a number of years to attend, it shows that UK publishing is very much on the government’s agenda.
“LBF is a great opportunity for UK publishers to showcase their latest products, but just as importantly it’s an opportunity to discuss the big issues facing the sector...and we will be involved in sessions on everything from big data to copyright reform, and diversity to accessible publishing.”
An issue not covered in the seminars - but one that will surely be a major talking point for British publishers at LBF - is the EU referendum debate. With a smile, Lotinga notes that “as a Liberal Democrat you can probably guess my personal thoughts [on Brexit], but there are a wide range a views within the industry”. He adds: “This is one of the most important debates this country will have in decades. What PA members need is clarity for their businesses. And I think the onus is for the ‘Leave’ campaign to explain what the business environment would be if the country votes to go. And that is very difficult, because you are anticipating a set of negotiations [with the EU] which have yet to occur.”
One issue that the PA will discuss in several LBF seminars is diversity, an area that Lotinga thinks the trade body has “a huge role to play in” both in its role as an influencing voice within the sector and on a nitty-gritty level.
“The is a broad common acceptance [that diversity needs to be improved],” he says. “Both in terms of the type of people being employed, and actually ensuring that people coming in have the right skills. It’s important that we move beyond talking about the problems the industry faces and think about the very practical responses to how the industry will deal with this. Ideally, I want publishing to be an industry recognised as a leader in [diversity].”
There is a step-change in responsibilities, I suggest to Lotinga, from being the comms majordomo to being the person answering he questions. He nods. “Sure, it’s self-evidently much easier being behind the camera, frantically gesturing to the person in front of the camera, than the other way round. But I had done all the jobs in politics that I wanted to do, and had a lot of great experiences. And all the skills I learned can contribute to help me.
“I don’t think it is hyperbolic to say that I think the publishing industry is one of the greatest industries there is,” he adds. “I had huge admiration for it before I arrived. I just think it often doesn’t get the credit it deserves for what it achieves. And I didn’t think there was any point going to a job in which everything that can be done has been done already. There is a huge amount we can do in getting more credit for what the industry has done in the past - and what it is doing now.”
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