Louise Morriss, PR agency director

Louise Morriss, PR agency director

We’ve switched things around in this interview. Public affairs advisor and subject of the first Lockdown Lowdown Stuart Thomson steps in as guest interviewer and gets to ask our founder and director Louise Morriss a bunch of questions, as we celebrate Amazon PR’s 20th birthday.


Getting started


Stuart: I wanted to start by wishing Amazon PR a very happy birthday. Getting to 20 years is a fantastic achievement for any business. You have had to win business, deliver for clients, build and develop teams and that’s to say nothing of all the admin of running a business as well! What made you want to start Amazon PR in the first place? And what was your first piece of work?


Louise: Thank you very much. I can’t quite believe it’s been 20 years!


Quite early on in my PR career I had an inkling I’d like to do my own thing. I did a few years in agencies, a short stint in-house and then three years freelancing, all of which was great, but the idea had taken root. Plus I knew I wanted to work on causes rather than consumer brands. So in 2000 I took the plunge. Looking back, it was a fairly impulsive decision, but I was young, had no mortgage and no responsibilities, so it was low-risk. I also had a lot of support and encouragement, which made all the difference. It all started in my basement flat in Highbury – with no clients, no staff and no money, just a fairly stubborn determination and a willingness to work. And dial-up internet!


I have very fond memories of Amazon PR’s first client: Islington Enterprise Agency. The project was a gender mainstreaming conference. The budget was pretty minimal, as I recall, but it was interesting work and it got us off the ground.


You’ve kept focused on the voluntary sector throughout; was there a time when you considered taking on other sorts of work?


I set out specifically to work on issues-based PR campaigns and for not-for-profit organisations. During our first decade we did voluntary and public sector work. As well as charities, we were appointed by Government departments and quangos. We turned down a couple of businesses. One was an airline. We were working on climate change projects at the time, so apart from having no desire to work for an airline anyway, it was something of a conflict of interest!


The past decade, during austerity, has seen our public sector work reduce. We’ve taken on a small number of commercial clients – one healthcare brand that came to us via a charity partnership, and a couple of like-minded consultancies that also serve the voluntary sector such as Legacy Foresight. I am very open to looking at responsible businesses, but we would only take on projects we really believe in.


We love working with you and the team, and it is clear that you have managed to maintain your enthusiasm and creativity. That is not always easy. How have you managed it? It can’t all be down sci-fi escapism?


We love working with you and your team too! And in fact a lot of my energy comes from the people I work with – staff, partners, but also clients. Every project is different and we cover a really broad range of issues – health, social care, housing, legal rights, education, environment. Plus each client has a different approach and culture, and different needs.


“No two briefs are the same, which keeps us all on our toes.”


Being a small team helps too, as we are able to adapt and experiment. I worked in a really big agency once, and seeing an idea through to fruition was sometimes painful as the process was so unwieldy. But for us, we can come up with something in our Monday morning meeting and have it in place by Tuesday afternoon.


Watching Doctor Who and The Mandalorian help keep me energised too, of course.



I know there are projects that I always feel particularly proud of. Across your 20 years there must be so many to choose from but if I unfairly forced you to pick a couple what would they be?


Actually this is an easy one for me. From 2003 to 2005 I advised the Sustainable Development Commission, which acted as the government’s ‘critical friend’. At the time the term ‘sustainable development’ was fairly new and not widely understood. The Commission was chaired by Jonathon Porritt, who is one of the best communicators around. Working with him to mainstream the issue and secure widespread media coverage of climate change, sustainable consumption and production, renewable energy, aviation and redefining prosperity was fantastic. We even got a broadsheet front page on the topic.


More recently, it’s our work for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and in particular the media campaign for Holocaust Memorial Day in 2015, which marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The national ceremony was attended by members of the Royal Family and political and religious leaders, and the BBC televised the event. It was a massive job and I met some incredible people, but what really sticks in my mind is the way the Amazon PR team pulled together on what was a very intense and demanding day. We faced plenty of challenges, but everyone absolutely rose to the occasion.


Two of my team need special mention and this is a good place to do it, as they led our work that day. She might not thank me for reminding her, but Kate Beard has been here for 14 years. Kirsty Kitchen joined at around the same time, though a couple of years ago moved on to become Head of Policy and Comms at Birth Companions. I hope they both know how brilliant they are. They have made an enormous contribution to Amazon PR, our ongoing success and our clients. I can’t thank them enough.


When I think back over the last 20 years so much has changed not least in PR and communications. How have you managed to keep on top of them?


Good question. Loads has changed. The way we work is almost unrecognisable in many ways. But the changes have been gradual – and as new people have joined our team and clients’ requirements have shifted, change has been adopted naturally.


“We read a lot, talk to people, attend events and seminars. I guess listening and learning are part of our DNA. I love finding new or different ways to do things – it means our work continues to improve, but also it keeps things interesting.”


When others are looking to you to maintain work and the business, not least their jobs, that brings with it a whole set of stresses. How do you maintain a balance between your Amazon PR and outside life? I would imagine your son comes up with some good ideas for that.


Before my son was born, work was all-consuming, but once he arrived I had to find more of a balance. I can’t say it’s been a breeze, but I know I am extremely fortunate in having control over my working life in a way that has allowed me some flexibility. The lines get blurred sometimes, and I regret the times work sapped me of the energy I needed at home.


But as you will know, all sorts of interesting new things enter your life when you’ve got kids. When my son was 8 he set up a book review website, which took off in amazing ways. We found ourselves at author events, literary festivals and even in the national media. More recently he’s taken up acting and film-making, so I’m learning about camera angles, editing techniques and reading lines for his audition tapes!


The aspect of life that gets neglected, of course, is the looking-after-myself part, which I’m working on. The best things for me when I’m stressed are time outdoors and as much exercise as can be squeezed into a week. I am a regular bootcamper and to anyone feeling the pressure I say: yoga and meditation are brilliant, but boxing gloves and a punchbag work wonders too!

The future


As we come out of lockdown we will all have a number of challenges to face. What is your attitude to the coming years and how are you preparing Amazon PR? Do you think you will still have a main HQ or will everything start to look more virtual?


I feel enormously grateful because we have coped well during lockdown. The move to working from home was smooth, we didn’t furlough anyone and our client work kept ticking along. Plus we’ve seen more briefs over the past two months than we normally would at this time of year, so short-term at least things look good. But like lots of other people, I think economically the worst is yet to come and the next couple of years will be very tough on our sectors.


We’ll need to adapt and we’ve started already. We’re responding to demand and have added to our service offering. We now provide consultancy – ie clients can hire me for ad hoc work, as well as having the option to hire the agency team to deliver a full project. It’s not a huge departure for us, but it gives us and our clients a bit more flexibility.


And I think flexibility is the key word. I expect to work remotely long-term, at least partially. Apart from the obvious upsides (no travel, less expense, etc), it becomes much easier to work with some very talented associates and partners who aren’t based near London, which I very much welcome.


Keeping one step ahead of client demands is always a big task. The fact you have had 20 years of success shows that you have that strategic insight as well. I’d certainly love to know what you think will happen next across PR and communications?


I know I should have a nifty answer to this question, but honestly I don’t. Obvious changes will no doubt include further eroding of trust in traditional media (plus new Fox News-style channels), further polarisation of political views, increasing economic inequality, huge challenges facing charities, and an ever more urgent need for climate action. All of that will influence how we work and for whom.


“What I hope we see even more of is people uniting and mobilising for positive change, politicians on all sides tuning into the real needs in society, more businesses taking social responsibility seriously, and media outlets that report on all that in a considered and constructive way.”


More immediately, clients are talking about needing to demonstrate impact, adapting to new ways of working (for example delivering services online longer-term) and campaigning for change.


Looking back, would you have a piece of advice for the Louise Morriss starting off Amazon PR?


Hmmm. I think if I could go back and tell my bright-eyed, idealistic self what running a business is really like, I might just put her off!


I would say: enjoy the Labour years, as they won’t last forever. There’ll be a thing called social media which you’ll be sceptical about at first, but it will practically take over the world. And you’ll never believe what happens in America in November 2016. Stay strong because believe it or not you’ll still be running this agency then, and beyond!


And what are the celebration plans? Large cake? Party? Socially distanced karaoke?


Circumstances dictate it will be a quieter one than we would have liked. But next year is our 21st, so I think that’s an excuse for a proper knees-up. (I have noted your request for karaoke – you can be the first one on the mic…)


Interview originally published in September 2020.