PROFILE: Carl Gibson, British Energy - Gibson rolls sleeves up for energy battle

British Energy's PR chief is driven to turn the power firm's image around

Whoever at British Energy's (BE) London office is in charge of collating the day's press has had a busy time of late. The cuttings are placed on a table in reception and such is the volume of coverage on the country's main nuclear power firm, it's tough to know how newly appointed PR chief Carl Gibson will begin when attempting to put a more positive spin on a company that is routinely described as being on the brink of collapse.

With BE again on the front pages last week, as the Government was forced to increase its £200m loan facility, it's no surprise, as Gibson jovially points out in his strong Teesside accent, that some diary columns have described his as 'the most difficult job in UK PR'.

It's week two in the job, and Gibson is far from demoralised by the catalogue of woe at BE, which was privatised in 1996 and is the UK's largest electricity generator. Gibson insists BE has 'blinding good messages' to get out - primarily the firm's environmental record - but, he adds with some sadness, 'it's not en vogue to write a nice story'.

Genial and good company, Gibson is, however, a realist. He is no stranger to challenging PR jobs, having joined from Energis, the telecoms group saved from collapse last year. Such experience, and his background as a 'humble clerk' in local government, stands him in good stead for the challenges ahead.

Raised in Hartlepool, Gibson says he 'grabbed a job at the local authority with both hands' when he was 19. He was plunged into crisis management early on (an asbestos scare in schools) and has plenty of anecdotes from his time at Cleveland County Council and Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council.

Gibson talks fondly of Hartlepool - he says, proudly, that the nuclear power plant in the town is British Energy's 'best-performing' station.

Hartlepool, of course, came to prominence last year when its population elected 'H'Angus the Monkey' as mayor. Revealing a passion for gambling that would later lead to a job at now-defunct lottery firm Pronto!, Gibson jokes: 'Apparently he was 100-1 on to win at Ladbrokes. If I'd have known that I'd have put a couple of quid on.'

In 1990 he joined a training scheme at Conservative Central Office, 'living out of a suitcase' and working on various by-election campaigns. His first consultancy job followed when he joined the then Westminster Communications.

'You can probably notice I'm restless for change,' says Gibson, clearly conscious of the extent to which he has jumped between organisations.

'I get bored,' he admits.

In consultancy, he says he began to find gambling issues 'truly fascinating', which led him to a role as PR boss at Pronto!, a firm he bluntly appraises as a 'commercial failure'.

He then joined Grant Butler Coomber, but his departure two years later was controversial, with GBC taking legal action against his next employer, client Energis (PRWeek, 2 March 2001). An 'amicable settlement' was later reached.

He spent three years at Energis and details the firm's well-chronicled troubles with characteristic straightforwardness. He says uncertainty about the company's future - he believes Energis 'will be sold, merged or floated within two years' - led to him to move on to BE, his biggest challenge yet.

But first Gibson has some pet industry hates to get off his chest. He blasts the public affairs industry as 'incredibly lazy', slamming agencies for what he describes as a failure to 'reinvigorate themselves'.

He talks passionately about the 'blandness' of new business pitches, adding: 'I want to see the account team, the people I will deal with, not some slick spinner who will bugger off after the pitch'.

DLA Upstream director Dr Steve John, who has worked for Gibson on various occasions (but is presumably exempt from his fiery criticism of the PA sector), lauds Gibson's 'high-profile stance to improve evaluation' and his 'effective' management style, saying: 'Carl doesn't micro-manage and he's very easy to get on with.'

One senses that BE's retained agencies, Hill & Knowlton and Financial Dynamics, had better be on their toes, but Gibson stressed that he has no 'immediate plans' to review their contracts.

He says he can't wait to 'get stuck into crisis management' at BE, specifically the lobbying and PR challenge to support ongoing restructuring and refinancing.

'We need some stability,' he says, before adding confidently: 'I joined because I think there will be a future here'.

HIGHLIGHTS

1997: Comms director, Pronto!

1998: Head of PA, Grant Butler Coomber

2000: Group director of regulation, Energis

2003: Head of external affairs, British Energy

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