Newsmaker: Vickie Sheriff heads for global challenges at Diageo

Diageo's new global comms director is a "robust and clear-headed" figure with 21 years' experience in Whitehall.

Vickie Sheriff: Well connected in Whitehall
Vickie Sheriff: Well connected in Whitehall

Vickie Sheriff is a well-respected and well-connected presence in government circles, having steadily climbed the ranks in both departmental and quasi-political roles.

Currently director of comms at the Department for Transport, her experience includes justice, international development and being deputy spokeswoman for Prime Minister David Cameron.

She saw in the coalition Government as head of news at 10 Downing Street, but will be seeing it out in a very different environment at the owner of Baileys, Johnnie Walker and Guinness.

For Diageo’s new director of corporate relations Charlotte Lambkin has lured Sheriff to the private sector to handle external and internal comms for the FTSE 100 constituent.

As one of the major players in the global drinks market, Diageo certainly has burning issues on the external comms front.

In March, its chief executive Ivan Menezes said it needed to "engage positively and constructively" in the debate about irresponsible alcohol consumption.

"We know that we face sentiment at the World Health Organization secretariat, among some NGOs and in some governments, which is negative," he said.

Sheriff points out that her new role, which she starts in September, does not include public affairs, but accepts that her political experience will be relevant.

She acknowledges: "It’s a real challenge to make sure Diageo does as much as possible to demonstrate its own values, which are strong, and does what it can to address the issues." 

Her new employer – she starts the role in September – is also under financial pressure amid sliding profits.

Menezes has embarked on a restructuring of Diageo’s 36,000-strong global workforce in a bid to achieve annual savings of £200m by mid-2017. Comms jobs are included among the 200 roles reportedly axed so far.

Sheriff is coming in to manage a team understood to number more than 20, spread across multiple regions.

She has experience here from her time at the Department for International Development, where she helped train government staff around the world in effective comms. 

But according to one former Diageo insider, the current "bloodletting", including a stripping out of regional teams outside Europe and North America, means one of Sheriff’s immediate challenges will be to revive employee morale.

Her plentiful supporters in government circles claim she is up to the job.

One former colleague argues that she has handled the "inevitable controversy" and "PR hand grenades" around the massive HS2 high-speed rail project effectively. 

"She’s done a good job of getting on with the job at hand and marshalling things to help drive the project through," they add.

She has also been trusted by no-nonsense government comms head Alex Aiken to play a leading role in reforms. This has involved aligning comms between arms-length bodies and central departments – a feat of diplomacy not to be underestimated. 

According to former Department for Work & Pensions director of comms John Shield she nonetheless knows how to make change happen.

"She is robust, insightful and clear-headed," he says, "and is someone who does rather than just talks."

All in all, Diageo appears to have made a good signing, as long as Sheriff manages to adapt to the different demands of corporate sector comms.

 

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