Profile: Richard Stephenson, group director of PR, Royal Mail Group

The head of PR at the national postal service is braced for the dramatic changes set to hit the company. Alec Mattinson reports.

Richard Stephenson
Richard Stephenson

David Cameron and Nick Clegg may have thought they were breaking new ground with their historic coalition, but actually Richard Stephenson got there years ahead of them.

Royal Mail's head of PR, aged 34, describes his efforts in 2007 to deposit a bunch of politicians in the Arctic - an idea to which many would be sympathetic - as a 'real coalition in action'. In his spare time, he formed the Westminster Challenge and organised a charity dog sled across the Arctic Circle with a cross-bench group of MPs, including Clegg, comms minister Ed Vaizey, representatives from charities and journalists.

It was an endeavour that sums up two qualities very apparent to Stephenson's ethos - an unquenchable thirst for diversity and a clear, apparent belief in the importance of bringing various parties together to drive change.

At Royal Mail, he is part of a team led by comms director Mary Fagan, who is soon to be replaced by ex-HBOS and Lloyds comms head Shane O'Riordain.

'I describe our operation as "coalition of comms",' says Stephenson. 'Bringing that coalition together is so important. Operating in a silo is never going to achieve the same results.'

'Richard gives robust and challenging feedback in an extremely diplomatic way,' comments Lesley McPherson, head of media at Aegon and a former client. 'He has a great sense of humour, but you can also completely trust him to provide succinct advice and understand the gravity of any crisis situation.'

Stephenson talks with genuine pride and enthusiasm about the 71 million items Royal Mail handles each day and is adamant this drive and passion is shared across the press and PR teams.

But this is not an organisation bathing in a virtuous circle. Times are tough for businesses generally, and Royal Mail is feeling the pressure more than most.

The firm recently announced a 72 per cent fall in operating profits, has an £8bn-plus pensions deficit, faces strikes over job cuts; and its very nature is likely to change after Business Secretary Vince Cable announced plans for privatisation.

Where others may see intense difficulties, Stephenson sees motivating challenges. 'Anyone who wants an easy life should not come and work here,' he admits. 'The next two years are going to be a hugely exciting, albeit challenging, period. The modernisation programme in this business is absolutely phenomenal.'

Stephenson says it is the sheer variety he faces every day that makes his role 'the best job in PR'. Last week he was working with CBBC and Newsround over the issue of a set of special stamps, as well as with national newspapers over complex economic and industrial relations issues, and overseeing a Twitter workshop, led by comedienne Sue Perkins, on the art of letter writing. 'I like diversity in my life,' he explains. 'It is that diversity that gets me up in the morning.'

This desire goes a long way to explaining how politics, something he describes as 'a hobby', developed into more of a parallel career. John Major and George Bush Senior may not be typically inspirational figures, but Stephenson's experiences as a teenager of working on their respective election campaigns in 1992 - including time in Washington DC - helped shape him into a politico for life.

This passion for politics culminated in an audacious bid to join the board of the Conservative Party when he was on the national executive of Conservative Future, the youth movement of the Tory party: 'It was a PR stunt to get our message out to the party that we were doing a good job. It was never meant to happen, but I won.'

Martin Popplewell, founder of Coconut Communications, former Sky News journalist and Smithfield colleague, observes: 'Richard has always been precocious in terms of being ahead of the pack. What's great about him is he's not just a career PR person. He has a wider range of experience than many far older than himself.'

So, why did he opt for a career in corporate public relations via Citigate and Smithfield, rather than the corridors of Whitehall or a public affairs consultancy?

'I wanted to carve a career outside of the political world, so if I did choose to go back I would have the business career that would put me in a better position,' he replies.

It sounds like an answer from someone with unfulfilled political ambition and he does not deny this when probed further. 'I never close a door before it has been opened,' he says.

Stephenson has already opened many doors in his short but impressive career and a whole corridor-full now awaits.


Richard Stephenson's turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

Getting a place on the highly regarded Cardiff University postgraduate in journalism, public and media relations course. Then securing an industrial placement at British Airways at such an early stage was incredible.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

I have had a few: Mike Smith, my convivial tutor in Cardiff; Sir Peter Brown, John Major's agent who gave me my first experience of media and comms, aged 16; Vaughan Andrewartha, who gave me my first PR job, and the late John Antcliffe, ex-CEO of Smithfield, who encouraged me to develop my professional and political careers. At Royal Mail, Mary Fagan has supported me throughout.

- What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

Just go for it. In PR, there is no such thing as a bad idea - there might be ideas that do not go anywhere, but there is never a bad one. Just go for it and show your creativity.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Ambition. Confidence. Creativity. Dedication.

 

CV

- 2008 Group director of PR, Royal Mail Group

- 2005 Board director and head of financial services, Smithfield

- 1998 Junior account executive, rising to associate director, Citigate Dewe Rogerson

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