When Starling Bank founder Anne Boden emailed the organisers of Startup Grind’s European conference to suggest that she turn the tables on me, it was either brilliantly out of the box thinking or a clever ruse to avoid having to answer my hard questions!
Either way, it was generous to partially give up her and Starling’s spot and let me have more of the limelight for once. It was a lot of fun, too.
More importantly the ensuing interview – even if I do say so myself – was much more interesting than the usual ‘how should startups pitch the media’ type questions I’m usually asked. Prior to the conference, Anne called to check if there were any red lines. 'Absolutely none,’ I assured her, and it’s fair to say she didn’t hold back.
The conversation covered the role of tech journalism, how I use technology to get around certain aspects of my disability and to stay employed, the secret to establishing sources and breaking stories, my recent political activism and criticism of City A.M. editor Christian May
(see ITK #39
), and what I think of Big Tech.
On the latter, Anne asked if I thought Big Tech was transparent? 'Big Tech is anything but transparent,’ I replied, before advising the audience to keep an eye out for who scale-ups hire as their head of corporate communications once they reach a certain size. Instead of recruiting someone senior from a consumer or B2B PR agency – or perhaps hiring an ex-journalist, as Starling has done – large tech companies often recruit comms people with a background in lobbying or political PR:
And you say to yourself, 'why does a tech company need to hire an ex-political spin doctor?’ And then you realise as tech gets more important, the intersection of tech and politics starts to collide, right. And I think when you start hiring people who are used to spinning around huge policy issues, it tells you something about some of the activities of these big tech companies.
I also poured scorn on the assumption that tech only ever changes the world for the better, and said that I thought the recent backlash against Facebook was a good thing:
Social media is an engine of populism - by its very nature, algorithms promote the most popular stuff. And Facebook’s ad engine is in a sense an engine for mass manipulation - I mean, that’s what it does! So I do think this recent scepticism is healthy.
One question I refused to answer, however, was when Anne asked who my favourite entrepreneur is. 'I don’t have favourites!’ I protested twice.
Nice try, Boden 😎
Bonus: Which fintech PR once compared their boss to a chocolate digestive biscuit?