My Internet: Victoria Main’s journey from party line to instant news
Victoria Main is a familiar Brussels face: after several years as a journalist and a stint as Head of Global Media at Nokia, she’s now Director of Media at Cambre Associates and the mastermind of their Brussels Calling events and video series. Her digital learning curve has been lifelong — while she’s now happy advising clients about the merits of social media, Ms Main grew up in rural New Zealand, where the sole means of communication with the wider world was a party line telephone.
“It was absolutely pivotal to the life of this isolated sheep station,” she recalls of the system, which meant seven farms shared a phone line. Anyone could listen in, and dialling relied on turning a handle for Morse Code. “We were 25 miles along a winding gravel road from the nearest town, and when the river running through our farm flooded, we got cut off.” After studying at Canterbury University in New Zealand’s South Island, she became a journalist, with a career that spanned the era from carbon paper and typewriters, to filing by Tandy computer, to live-tweeting speeches.
After a stint in Hong Kong for Agence-France Presse, Ms Main moved to Europe in the early 1990s and worked for financial newswire AFX in London, Milan and Brussels. “When mobile phones came along, New Zealanders were early adopters,” she says, noting she’d had (an admittedly large) one to cover elections in 1990. But on arrival in Europe, mobile phones were yet to be widely seen and the internet was in its infancy. Most news — from Italian government statistics to Fiat’s earnings announcements — came by fax, frequently heralded by the sound of a rival newswire’s journalists upstairs sprinting across the parquet floor.
The internet changed everything. Email and instant messaging programs like AIM and MSN Messenger meant communication between bureaux was immediate. Early incarnations of the mobile internet — think giant cards which slid into a laptop in the pre-USB era — meant covering speeches and live Q&A got exponentially easier. “Smaller newswires like AFX could fight it out with the bigger ones in terms of timing,” she says. With flash headlines moving markets, timing is all, and BlackBerries were the next big change, allowing reporters on doorsteps to send quotes directly. (Disclosure: Victoria was my boss at AFX during the era when we were using these new toys to cover everything from finance ministers’ meetings to European Central Bank speeches).
In 2010, Ms Main made the transition from journalism to public relations with a move to FTI Consulting. The shift continued: instead of a TV in the office — standard in any newsroom — Twitter was increasingly influential. At FTI Ms Main met the client that got her really interested in online issues, the Internet Society. She had to act as a conduit between them and journalists to explain subjects from net neutrality to the IPv6 rollout. She then moved to an in-house role at a client, Nokia Siemens Networks, which went on to become the core of the reinvented Nokia. “I wasn’t an expert,” she recalls. “I had to take incredibly techy press releases and make them accessible to journalists without upsetting the engineers.” Throughout this era, online services became essential for any communications strategy, and phones became the main way to get online, moving in her case from a BlackBerry, to a Windows phone, to an iPhone.
“My use of technology is on a need-to-know basis,” confesses Ms Main, who tweets as @HackTurnedFlack and has a gold iPhone 6s to match her collection of fabulous accessories. “I’m a big user of FaceTime,” which she uses to keep in touch with friends and family — her parents still live on a farm in New Zealand, but video calls have replaced the party line. Cambre makes extensive use of WhatsApp groups, and while she doesn’t currently use Slack for work, it could be next on the list.
Her top apps include BFMTV, from the French business news channel. “It’s really brilliant, if there’s something big in Europe,” she says praising both their coverage and the way video works in the app. “They have great debates, and it’s good to have a non-Anglo take on the news.” Other favourites include The Guardian, which provides an “excellent round-up” and, via good old-fashioned email, Politico’s Playbook, which is a “must-read for anyone in Brussels.” She’s also a fan of the Eurostar app, for her weekly commute, the British Airways app for hops to the South of France, and the Financial Times app.
Ms Main also has an iPad mini “so everything’s a bit locked in to the Apple walled garden.” Although the selection of apps is great for work, she adds, “I resent the way Apple makes you have its own app,” in particular the health and watch apps, which she finds intrusive. Leaving the world of Apple is a step she would like to take, but only when she has the time to explore alternatives. And as for the worst aspect of technology? PowerPoint presentations. While a few good practitioners can genuinely use them well to captivate an audience, most rely on text on slides and take too long. “As a journalist, I always found presentations with slides were a pretext to put on my sunglasses and have a snooze.”