Can you describe your role to our readers and your day-to-day duties?
My role is global media relations director for Unilever. I’m quite ‘hands-on’ in the role – perhaps a bit too hands on at times – because I still like delivering great stories into the media and I am really enjoying experimenting with new media – something I hope rubs off on my team, pretty much all of whom I have recruited over the past two or three years.
We’re seeing stories develop in interesting ways.
The most recent development we had was a story to showcase our innovative science especially for radio – it was about how background sound affects the way we enjoy our food (including airline food) – but it was fascinating to see it have a second life online and generate huge interest (it was one of the BBC’s most popular stories with over 800,000 hits in a day).
We’re a small team, but very complimentary in our skills and experience.
There is a complication in that we’re an Anglo-Dutch business and so my core team is London and Rotterdam and I need to be very cognisant of Unilever’s importance to the Dutch business community.
Day-to-day though, it’s all about reputation enhancement and protection, so I’m often still a first point of call for UK and international journalists with all sorts of questions and requests.
I’m essentially responsible for managing and coordinating corporate media relations and establishing and maintaining best practice within the Media Relations Centre of Excellence.
So apart from helping the team on day-to-day media engagement, I spend time trying to make sure that we are at the leading edge of industry best-practice and making that practice available across the Unilever media relations network.
I’m also responsible for helping formulate Unilever’s communication strategy and then planning and implementing the media relations elements of the strategy.
I suppose I act as counsel for the business on all media relations matters. I work with the CEO and all of the ten-strong senior management, managing all their media engagement, with colleagues in the regions. I also work particularly closely with our Investor Relations team [with the recent overseeing of media enquiries for the $3.7bn (£2.3bn) acquisition of global hair and beauty products manufacturer Alberto Culver].
The message that Unilever delivers through its public relations teams is wide and varied from consumer PR to business and trade PR. What are the main differences between how Unilever approaches them?
Consumer, or brand PR and trade PR is handled slightly differently in different countries – partly for historical reasons, partly for pragmatism.
In the UK, brand PR is managed by one person, reporting through the marketing function, co-ordinating roster agencies. She and my UK media relations manager stay in close touch to manage any issues that arise.
Trade is handled by our customer marketing team, using a PR Agency (Clarion Communications) and again, staying in close touch with my UK media relations manager.
On a global basis, our categories and big brands also use a roster of agencies to help them develop campaigns, but anything outside of the consumer arena is either handled by my team, or in conjunction with it.
Unilever has one of the widest product ranges in the world. What specific challenge does this present?
You’re right in that Unilever sells everything from Wall’s ice cream to Domestos bleach, but the chief challenges for my team and I are not so much around the breadth of the portfolio, but rather around the big issues that multi-national consumer goods face and maintaining consistency across 100-plus countries.
That said, having a diverse portfolio does mean that one has brands that have different target audiences and therefore use different communication methods and styles to reach those audiences and some of these have been accused of being contradictory.
The portfolio diversity also means that the issues that do arise are equally diverse and so we have to be very on the ball and alert to developments on everything from food ingredients, to biofuels, to refrigeration and skin lightening.
Having a good reputation for behaving responsibly as a business over many years and doing the right thing, combined with big, iconic brands also makes us an obvious target for being hi-jacked for leverage by campaigning non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which keeps life interesting.
Has the message Unilever delivers through its communications channels changed with the move toward a more sustainable product?
Unilever has a long-established reputation for sustainability – we’ve topped the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 12 years in a row [including last month] – but the challenge for us now is to separate business growth from environmental impact. Our ambition is to reduce our environmental impact, but to double the size of our business at the same time.
I’m not naïve or evangelical enough to think Unilever can change the world, but I do think that we are uniquely placed to make a significant contribution to a broader effort.
Companies like ours can do a lot to reduce their own impacts, but these represent only a few per cent of the overall impacts across the lifecycle of our products. For us, that means working with those who grow and supply our agricultural raw materials at one end and changing consumer behaviour at the other.
We got the ball rolling when we helped create the Marine Stewardship Council to preserve fish stocks back in the 1990s and we’ve made commitments on certified sustainable tea and palm oil more recently and have been driving the market towards more concentrated detergent liquids.
We’ve done a good job of communicating the individual parts, but need to do more on turning the story into more than the sum of its parts.
I don’t think people realise that this sort of corporate behaviour is going to be the minimum expected by consumers and those whose behaviour falls short will be punished where it hurts most - in the marketplace.
The perception is that the advent of digital channels and the rise of social networking has presented new challenges to public relations teams. In what way has the message generated by Unilever changed because of this?
It’s not so much that Unilever’s messages have changed, but we’ve had to get smarter about the way we get them to the people who most influence our business environment.
It’s a bit like what’s happened to TV. Once, a PG tips ad in the Coronation Street break would have reached a huge proportion of the brand’s target audience.
Media fragmentation has made that impossible, digital media has made it more complicated. Similarly, once upon a time, a great piece in the FT would have done a huge amount of the hard work for our corporate team.
The diminishing reach of hard copy newspapers has changed the nature of our approach. We now have to develop content more smartly to match the needs of newspaper websites, develop new contacts in non-traditional media and work out how best to service them.
There is also a challenge in maintaining message consistency in a world where we are encouraging our employees who use all manner of social media all over the world to be ambassadors for the business.
Are there specific challenges presented by global versus regional communications schedules? If so, how do you adapt to these challenges?
There is little, or no regional media. The real trick is to be able to layer communication so that any given country is able to deploy global themes in a tailored way, with a regional and national nuance.
This adds layers of complexity and requires a highly developed media relations network within Unilever to ensure awareness to particular sensitivities at all levels.