Joel Morris: Coke fuels Olympic fire

The comms director of Coca-Cola Great Britain & Ireland tells Alec Mattinson that CSR is central to the brand's support of London 2012.

Joel Morris: ‘In the last few years we’ve done a far better job of getting more on the front foot and telling our story. I’d like to see us get on the front foot even more.’
Joel Morris: ‘In the last few years we’ve done a far better job of getting more on the front foot and telling our story. I’d like to see us get on the front foot even more.’

As Joel Morris sits down for the interview with the days ticking down to London 2012, he begins with one of the great understatements.

'As far as the past few months go, it's been pretty busy...,'he nonchalantly explains, with a calm assuredness entirely at odds with the magnitude of the task he and his team face.

The Games has come to dominate the life of Coca-Cola Great Britain's comms and public affairs director as he spends his time shaping the story of the brand's multi- million-pound global sponsorship. 'The Olympics is our single biggest asset, so it's absolutely vital we get it right,' he says.

The breadth and depth of Coca-Cola's work with the Games is vast - from youth oriented programme Future Flames and music-driven Coca-Cola Beatbox, to ambitious social and environmental drives.

'We need to be honest and say that the sponsorship of the Olympics is a commercial exercise for us and a huge opportunity to deepen the relationship our consumers have with the brand. But CSR is equally important - it's more than just the right thing to do, it's good business sense.'

He says the projects have been two years in the planning and the activity began in earnest when the torch relay started in May.

Morris went to Land's End to welcome the torch to the UK and talks animatedly about the 'buzz' and 'excitement' he and his team got from the public's reaction.

'There was some media debate about whether the public was behind the relay, but the reality on the ground was totally different. It's a cliche, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and people want to celebrate and participate wherever they can.'

Morris, 39, is clearly a disciple of the five rings but argues that the real impact of both the Games and Coca-Cola's involvement will take far longer to evaluate.

The firm has partnered with independent think-tank Demos to develop a model for measuring the social impact of the legacy it leaves London. 'We're taking the business into something that isn't its natural comfort zone. It may transpire there were areas we could have done more in, but that's part of the purpose of the exercise,' says Morris.

There is, of course, an extra scrutiny around Coca-Cola's links with the Games as the brand has been lumped by the media together with McDonald's and Cadbury as unsuitable backers of sporting excellence.

'It's no surprise to see some of the negative media coverage, but I believe the best response is focusing on the benefits our sponsorship brings to the Games,' says Morris. 'The fact is sponsors' support makes the modern Games possible and reduces the cost to the public.'

He is no stranger to health issues, having worked at pharma giant Pfizer. 'We recognise obesity is a serious problem, but I'd strongly contend the extent to which it can be laid at the feet of any individual food or drink brand,' he argues. He talks at length about Coca-Cola investing £3m to reformulate recipes, create low-calorie alternatives and promote active lifestyles, but he acknowledges it is a challenge to get those arguments heard.

It is not only consumers who need convincing the company's commitment to public health is more than superficial. He says it is also the 'single biggest issue' in the public affairs space. It is a reminder how wide-ranging his role is, encompassing PA, brand and corporate comms, and the sheer range of geopolitical, environmental and social issues Coca-Cola needs to address.

External comms, Morris acknowledges, is an area where the company has needed to step up its game in recent years. 'There was a time when our PR function was not as critical to the business as it is now,' he explains. 'In the past few years, we've done a far better job of telling our story.'

He admits that marketing 'is where the muscle is' in the company, but he has prioritised working more closely with the marketeers so when brand-building campaigns are being created, such as Diet Coke's tie-up with Jean Paul Gaultier, PR always has a seat at the table.

'Joel's very strategic, but he's also a guy who rolls up his sleeves and gets things done,' says former Coca-Cola colleague Steve Leroy, now vice-president legal & corporate affairs, Western Europe, at Anheuser-Busch InBev. He adds that Morris is an 'outstanding networker and people manager'.

Morris' first career break came after grilling Mike Regester and Judy Larkin as part of a journalism and PR course in Cardiff. The pair were so impressed they took him on immediately after university. 'I learned a huge amount there,' he says. 'That issues and crisis grounding has held me in good stead through the rest of my career.'

After a stint in tech at Harvard, he found his way in-house at Pfizer and it was in the 'fast-moving and challenging' world of pharma that he began to stand out from the crowd. Perhaps most notably he managed a number of groundbreaking media campaigns including a four-year BBC project following an HIV drug from conception to production and opening the doors of the pharma lab to show animal research taking place.

When asked about his life outside the Coca-Cola bubble, always mindful of the message, Morris' interest in birdwatching and nature morphs into a recounting of the sterling environmental work the firm is doing as part of its sustainability plan.

The media remain largely cynical over corporate involvement in, and influence over, the Games. But after spending time with Morris, that cynicism is far harder to justify. And that is perhaps one of the finest compliments one could pay him.

CV

2012: Director, public affairs and comms, Coca-Cola Great Britain & Ireland

2007: Director of media relations, Coca-Cola Europe

2003: Director of media relations (Europe), Pfizer Global Research & Development

2002: Corporate comms manager, Pfizer UK & Ireland

2000: Senior account manager, Harvard PR

1997: Consultant, Regester Larkin

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Being offered a job by Regester Larkin in 1997. I learned a huge amount from smart and experienced colleagues and clients. I have used elements of what I learned in every job I've had since.

Have you had a notable mentor?

At Pfizer, Stephen Lederer had brilliant media instincts and Colette Goldrick was bold, passionate and persuasive. Judith Luker made me realise the importance of intellectual rigour when we worked together at Regester Larkin.

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

Do every task to the best of your ability. Quality work gets noticed. Seek responsibility and keep pushing yourself to learn - through experience and formal training.

What do you prize in new recruits?

A willingness to roll their sleeves up, hunger, initiative, the ability to listen and humour.

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