Profile: Christopher Morris, Harrods

Morris becomes the PR voice for Al Fayed. Experienced journalist Christoper Morris relishes the challenge at Harrods.

Christopher Morris does not look 64 - the face is that of a man ten years younger. He also does not look like a man with 50 pieces of shrapnel in his chest. Yet his doctor insists they are there, the legacy of a landmine while reporting on the Turkish invasion of Cyprus (one of 16 wars he has covered) nearly 28 years ago. He has worked on TV and radio for the BBC, ITN and Sky, and in print for most of Fleet Street, across six decades.

This week he took up a new position on the fifth floor of one of London's most recognisable buildings, and as director of public affairs at Harrods, Morris has undeniably landed a high-profile PR role. Others approached for the job include former transport ministry comms director Martin Sixsmith.

And yet the job title itself is slightly deceptive. True, the store employs 6,000 people. True, it is a business which demands a coherent PR strategy.

True, there are book signings, fashion shows and sales to promote. But Morris's role will effectively boil down to being spokesman for the store's owner, Mohamed Al Fayed. As Morris puts it: 'Mr Al Fayed is a plain speaker.

He wants somebody to keep an eye on what he can say, to avoid antagonising the establishment.'

Morris's predecessors will have wanted to do the same, yet that did not stop the businessman suggesting Prince Philip had been behind a plot to kill his son Dodi, and that Tony Blair's cabinet were 'dishonest crooks and bastards'. When it comes to antagonising the establishment, Al Fayed has form.

And there may be more to come: a British inquest into the death of Princess Diana five years ago is tentatively slated for 2003.

By the desk at his home in Gerrards Cross Morris has two in-house Harrods videos - The Alma Tunnel Mystery and Who Killed Diana and Dodi? - which purport to detail the apparent inconsistencies surrounding the Paris car crash. Morris has been asked to look at them 'and see if there is any mileage in it'. Al Fayed is not planning to let the story drift away.

The UK government's refusal to grant him a passport is also a continuing source of rancour for the Egyptian businessman, and Morris adds: 'I suspect there are other cases pending.' It will not be dull in SW1.

Before Morris started last week, Harrods' PR was run by controller of public affairs and ex-Mail on Sunday journalist Chester Stern. But there is to be no confusion over the roles, with Stern concentrating on Al Fayed's interest in Fulham FC.

'Mr Al Fayed rang me up the other day and told me I was in charge,' Morris confirms. And what Al Fayed says undoubtedly goes.

This might seem a sticking point for a journalist used to a degree of autonomy. But Michael Cole, who for ten years did the job Morris has taken on and is now a director at City PR firm Lehmann Communications, insists Morris's new boss listens to his advisers: 'Mr Al Fayed likes to have grown-ups around him and he wants one standard: excellence.'

Although Morris has no background in public affairs, he gives every impression of knowing just what he is getting into: 'It's probably one of the most challenging jobs in PR. My knowledge of PR is, to a degree, limited, but I think I know the workings of the business.'

He candidly suggests that former colleagues will have raised an eyebrow at the appointment. And Bob Friend, senior newsreader at Sky News, who has worked with Morris at the BBC and Sky, admits: 'I was surprised after a lifetime of hard news but it appeals to him as a real challenge, working with a huge personality. Chris is the sort of person who would try very hard to explain to Al Fayed the pitfalls of speaking unguardedly too often.'

And if Morris asked him to 'go easy' on his employer over a story? Friend laughs. 'Chris wouldn't ask,' he says, adding: 'But I don't think Chris would tolerate a situation where his advice is not taken.'

Morris is not the first person to move into a high profile PR role without any direct experience. And he also brings with him three important attributes: he is sensible, he is highly experienced as a journalist and, perhaps crucially, he doesn't really need the job.

After two retirements (from the BBC and Sky), money is not an overriding concern. As a precondition of accepting the job, next month he is taking a three-week holiday in Hawaii, booked a year ago.

With Al Fayed as his new boss, you can bet that his mobile will remain on throughout.

HIGHLIGHTS

1962: Foreign reporter, ITN

1979: Newsreader, BBC TV

1989: Presenter, Sky News

2000: Director, Omnivision

2002: Public affairs director, Harrods

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