"I'd rather people be talking about me than the plumber up the road": PR lessons from Charlie Mullins

Pimlico Plumbers' CEO has mastered the art of publicity.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2019

Bosses tend to vary in their approach to managing their public image.

Some prefer a subtle, more controlled approach, keep their personal views to themselves and stay out of national debates. Others let rip. Charlie Mullins definitely falls into the latter camp.

Since founding the London-focused Pimlico Plumbers in 1979, he’s built a reputation for loud PR. As well as appearing in a BBC documentary, the company has an active social media footprint, offers a broad range of branded nicknacks and ensures that its fleet of 250 blue, white and red Volkswagen vans are instantly recognisable all over the city.

Mullins himself isn’t afraid to nail his colours to the mast. He’s a vocal critic of Brexit, is running as a candidate in the 2020 London mayoral election and, in 2018, his company hit the headlines when it constructed a 35-metre-long, bright yellow "Bollocks to Brexit" sign on the roof of its Lambeth HQ and on 22 digital billboards across the city.

It’s a strategy that appears to be working. Pimlico turned over £43.3m for the financial year ending 31 May 2018, with profits of £3m.

Mullins spoke to Management Today about the value of strong PR, why brand is important and whether all bosses should express their personal views in public.

Is loudness a deliberate PR strategy?

"I find it hard to see how a successful company can progress without some form of PR going on. It can be at whatever level - radio, telly, social media or the charities that you market yourself through.

"In today's day and age, people go by marketing and branding and what they hear and see about you more than ever.

"We do many things, but the best advertising tool we have is our vans, 250 of them. Firstly, they’re covered in livery that is quite noticeable. Second, they’re always clean, which is again very noticable and we have plumbing related number plates.

"It’s a quality product. We use the same make for all of the vans, that gets repeated recognition. By sticking to one identical model, people subconsciously believe there are more out there because they don’t stop seeing them. If it was a different van it wouldn't have the same effect."

You’re clearly happy to wear your heart on your sleeve. Should all chief executives be more public with their views?

"People come up to me and say 'oh you're very interested in politics, but by the way I want a new toilet.' So if it happens to be that they recognise you for the right reasons then all the better.

"I wouldn’t have put up the Bollocks to Brexit sign if I felt it was a risk. It’s like anything, you’ve got to take a chance in business, nearly 60 per cent [59.9] of Londonders voted to remain so I’m pretty much betting on the favourite. I think if we’d gone the other way we would have lost business, but the fact that we put it out there actually did the company more good then harm.

"Last year was our best year on record - sales were up 15 per cent. We had more people than ever actually book jobs because they said they liked the sign. The ones that said they wouldn't use us over it weren't going to use us anyway. They were out in the sticks, in Manchester, Devon and places like that that are not in our customer base.

"I’m not saying that it’s the right thing for every business to do and I was quite taken aback at the impact it has had."

Can such publicity ever backfire? The company has been involved in a high profile employment tribunal, which must be a distraction.

"I don’t think so because we’re a very transparent company. I think the fact that we’re outspoken and people know us actually puts us in a better position because people start to think, 'is that really true about them?'

"In terms of the employment tribunal, we've had many people talk about it, and a lot of people have seen it as a big plus for Pimlico. We went to the Supreme Court over workers rights, it wasn’t anything more than workers rights.

"We won a case over holiday and sick pay and then judges decided that he wasn't entitled to any*. I believe our name won us those cases, because people are aware that you can't treat people like that and run a successful business.

"So obviously press can be good and bad, but I think overall, whether it's on the telly or in the newspaper, I'd rather it be about Pimlico Plumbers than the plumbing company up the road."

So it’s not about trying to manage the message? Other businesses seem to see that as a good strategy.

"Some people are bothered about their image and that it may be used against them, but look, what is right is right and what's wrong is wrong. If you're doing something wrong and it’s got out there then you need to be told that and you need to correct it.

"What makes you an ordinary business is sitting on the fence. What makes you a different business, and quite often a better business, is putting your head above the parapet."

*In 2018 the supreme court ruled in former Pimlico contractor Gary Smith’s favour that he could be classed as a worker, and therefore entitled to holiday pay and other rights. His claim for holiday pay was dismissed in March 2019 on the basis that his claim was not lodged quickly enough.

Image credit: Pimlico Plumbers


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