Greg Dawson: The fun side of flying

Virgin Atlantic's corporate comms chief wants to boost the brand's appeal globally and have a little fun along the way, finds Sara Luker.

Greg Dawson: The fun side of flying
Greg Dawson: The fun side of flying

Virgin Atlantic's director of corporate comms speaks the language of journalists.

Greg Dawson has been responsible for tabloid gold such as which car colour is most likely to have accidents, the creation of a director of sleep, unearthing a couple who had lived in a Travelodge for 22 years and the 'cuddillow' pillow complete with arms for lone hotel guests to cuddle up to.

One can imagine that ideas such as these keep him awake at night, as he is bursting with new creative concepts.

PRWeek caught up with him at Virgin Atlantic's training facility in Crawley, where he cut a conspicuous figure among the sea of red-suited flight attendants.

Dawson is quick to give a guided tour, noticeably proud of the company he joined just last year.

At the age of 37, Dawson has an uncanny knack of being laddish but still pleasant. His cheeky sense of humour and ever-present smile makes him charming company.

He has more than a decade of experience at some of the UK's most famous brands, but he only found himself working in PR because a promised trainee reporter job on the Esher News & Mail fell through.

'My granddad used to tell me that I would end up as a journalist because I was always a cheeky chap and had a way of getting information out of people without causing offence,' Dawson recalls. 'When the full-time job at the paper fell through, it was a huge blow. I had left school and didn't have a degree, which meant I was a few years behind.'

While still working towards a career in journalism, Dawson took a Saturday job on the fish counter of a branch of Sainsbury's. 'It didn't help me meet the girls - I stank,' he says, laughing.

Dawson quickly moved up the ranks and, by the age of 22, he was in charge of 50 staff in a store that had half a million pounds passing through its tills each week.

'It's such hard work being a store manager,' he says. 'I remember trying to motivate the staff. I once spent two hours a day for two weeks training two lads. The next day they had a fight and I had to fire them. It was a constant battle.'

A visit by retail director Graham Naylor took Dawson away from the battlefield, after Naylor offered him a job as his comms adviser.

'He was ruthless and went through two advisers during his first three months in charge,' says Dawson. 'I had to be on his driveway at 6am on the dot, with the car in the right position, seat belts placed how he likes them - everything had to be immaculate. It was like working inside a pressure cooker.'

He says his time at Sainsbury's turned him into the manager he is today. 'When I first came to Virgin, no-one had been given a performance review for four years,' he says. 'I quickly changed that.

'PR does not prepare you for management and not many PR professionals can take the pressure.'

Secondments at Sainsbury's press office followed before the then director of comms Pip Wood took him on full-time. Wood, now director of corporate comms at property investment firm British Land, says of Dawson: 'He has an overwhelming sense of drive and creativity. He always strives to be the best he can be and wants everyone to work to that standard.'

Dawson has an air of a man driven by results - a trait that IHG's former comms director, now GSK's V-P of global corporate affairs, Leslie McGibbon, noticed when they both worked in the hotel industry.

'He's obsessed with getting a result and is very much output-led,' McGibbon notes. 'But Greg works with a smile on his face and understands that there is more to life than work. He is also a fun guy and good to have a beer with - he's full of great stories.'

Although his feet are very rarely on the ground, Dawson still strikes a balance between his home and work lives.

He is also a generous man, once surprising a friend with a trip to Hong Kong.

Although sensible use of money might not be his area of expertise; he admits he once bought a house in the south of France when he was drunk on Rose.

At work, his challenge is 'to build on a brand that is already loved', he says. 'I'm keen to get across that we are much more than just Richard Branson.'

Dawson wants to put the fun back into flying. 'I want to see us pushing stories out like the strange request made by a female passenger, who asked if the engines could be turned off so she could sleep.'

He says that Virgin Atlantic's brand awareness is strong in the UK, but weak globally. 'This is my main focus for 2012,' he explains. 'We need a network that can quickly turn around the releases we create and make them work for local audiences around the world.'

Dawson has a track record of creativity, but he is equally keen to wade into industry debates.

'I want Virgin Atlantic to be more of a force when it comes to challenging government decisions that affect our industry.

'The UK airlines are the highest taxed and we are being priced out of appealing to overseas business people. As a body, we need to fight this.'

Currently, Virgin Atlantic does not use a PR company. This is something Dawson says may change next year depending on budgets. Only the most creative firms need apply.

CV

2010 Director of corporate comms, Virgin Atlantic

2005 Director of comms, Travelodge

2002 Head of PR, RBS Insurance

2001 Internal comms manager (secondment), Sainsbury's

2000 Head of press and PR (secondment), Taste - Carlton TV and Sainsbury's joint venture

1998 Press officer, Sainsbury's

1993 Trainee management and department manager positions, Sainsbury's

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Persuading the retail director of Sainsbury's to pay my wages for six weeks so that I could try to impress the press office. I managed to scrape a job by the end of my trial and have not looked back since.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Pip Wood, former director of comms at Sainsbury's. Pip's cool and measured outlook on careers and relationships has helped me to temper my energies and occasional impatience.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Strive to be the best that they can be every day. Aim for responsibility and progression first - the financial rewards will come later. Try to learn something new every week.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Hunger to do well. New recruits should take every opportunity to learn as much as they can and if that means working way beyond 9am-5pm, then so be it.

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