Leeds-born Sam Jaffa broke some of the most important stories of the 20th century before becoming a communications expert. JLife’s Laura Sefton spoke to him about Swiss rolls, Brexit and what a good media strategy looks like.
Sam Jaffa tells a funny story about the time he rescued the Swiss roll. The broadcast journalist was based at Radio Stoke at the time and it was late March.
“The Swiss government didn’t want us to use the term ‘Swiss roll’ anymore,” says Sam. He asked when the meeting was taking place to discuss this issue. “‘It’s on the morning on 1st April’, they said. I couldn’t believe it. The Today programme covered it and in the broadcast the presenter said: ‘If you believe this it’s by a guy called Sam Jaffa.’”
Luckily, the newspapers did not take it as an April Fool’s joke and as the backlash was so vehement, the whole idea was scrapped. “So I effectively saved the Swiss roll!” explains Sam.
In a career that saw him cover some of the most harrowing events in recent history including The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Oklahoma bombing, this story is a welcome relief.
Having decided against newspaper journalism upon gaining a post graduate diploma at Cardiff University, Sam had opted for broadcast, eventually becoming foreign correspondent for the BBC where he carved a career as one of the organisation’s most prolific reporters.
Now, he is a communications expert. Speaking to him a week after the EU referendum result was announced, our conversation inevitably turned to the media and the quick succession of breaking news stories: “You can’t look at the news, it’s just depressing,” he said. “I’m not doing much public affairs [communications] work at the moment but that is probably going to increase, given the uncertainty in the country with the vote for Brexit, financial uncertainties and obviously political uncertainties.”
Sam speaks with authority. After leaving journalism behind for a role as head of media relations at PricewaterhouseCoopers, he became the leader on marketing and communications for UBS financial services and went on to set up BrandNew Communications:
“BrandNew Communications came about in 2002 after I left UBS. I decided to set up my own little company, where I worked with public sector organisations in the main and a few private sector firms to give them good advice at reasonable costs. I had a string of different clients, notably the Home Office, and I branched out into enabling people to interact with parliamentarians and the politicians.”
Sam says that the company has had its dips over the years, however the recession proved manageable for him and his fledgling company as the public sector was loathe to cut the marketing and communications teams at a time when it was vital to engage with clients and customers, as well as, in the case of the public sector, stakeholders.
In his capacity as a communications expert, Sam went on to work as a consultant for the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). The organisation was facing closure when he was brought in but by the time he left, David Cameron was being asked to make assurances for the future of the SFO and he made sure that Theresa May, then-home secretary, stood up in parliament to make those assurances: “In fact, she was actually one of our arch-nemeses who was trying to close us down. That was a particularly joyful moment to see us succeed.”
Today, Sam is continuing to work on varied marketing and communications projects. Recently he has been working on crowdfunding for an organisation to help produce a device for coastguards that monitors emissions at sea, as well as working with a company in the North East on how to grow their business, plus crisis management for journalists.
“BrandNew is a small enterprise that I’ve created but I will bring in expertise when I need it,” says Sam. “It’s practical solutions to the problem. You have these media companies that don’t help deliver what they’ve said they’ll do but I don’t do that. I always want to help to implement the strategy I’ve devised.”
Sam has come a long way since his broadcast journalism days. Does anyone he interviewed over the years stand out? “James Stewart was fantastic. He was in his 80s when I spoke to him and he was so famous but so modest. Margaret Thatcher stands out as well – she was terribly scary! And if I could have been working on any major story in history, I’d have loved to have been there at Watergate or perhaps the abdication of Edward VIII. But I think ultimately working on the Picture Post during the war would’ve been awesome.”
With all of his communications work coming up, as well as his plans in the pipeline for creating a series of crime novels set in Africa, Sam says he does not get the opportunity to visit Leeds as much as he’d like to, but that he loves the city: “Leeds is special. It’s the Yorkshire people. Honest, hardworking. They can laugh at themselves but others more. That’s what I like; people who see the world in a certain way.”