View from the top: Geoff Lancaster

The man behind Primark’s PR uses a softly-softly approach to communications, as Claire Murphy reports

If this year is anything like last, Geoff Lancaster's PA won't get a free lunch for some time to come. The external affairs chief for Primark's parent company Associated British Foods (ABF) found a novel way to measure the overwhelming media coverage of Primark last summer, offering to take his assistant out for lunch when the retailer stopped getting at least one mention on any given day. She didn't get her free meal until late November.

In a bumper 2005, the budget store expanded rapidly, buying 120 Littlewoods stores and re-opening them at the rate of one a week.

The largest, on London's Oxford Street, is due to open in 2007. In the year to 17 September, Primark's like-for-like sales were up nine per cent, and last November it announced a 30 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £140m.

The media frenzy began last April when Monsoon sued Primark, alleging it had copied some of its designs. Lancaster claims Monsoon went to the press 'thinking it would embarrass us, but in fact our shops were inundated with calls from consumers wanting the clothes in question.'

Although Primark settled out of court and removed the items, the net effect of the litigation was firmly in the chain's favour. The publicity not only flagged up the cheap prices for which Primark has always been known, but also underlined its increased fashionability. Cue one appearance in Vogue for a now almost iconic Primark military jacket, and the brand's position as fashion underdog was set.

Fast-track profits
Lancaster is refreshingly honest about being in the eye of a publicity storm. 'We can't claim to have created it, and we don't actively seek to encourage it,' he says.

In November, for example, he took a call from a producer at the BBC's Money Programme who was planning a show on the rise of value clothing retailers, and inevitably wanted to include directors from Primark. But Lancaster turned them down, opting instead to grant a film crew access to its stores.

'Consumers will be able to see our stores, so we'll be represented. Why take our directors' time up any further?' he argues.

He is conscious that many PROs will find this decision strange. However, he says the strategy fits perfectly with ABF's corporate culture: 'Primark's proposition, which hinges on price, speaks for itself. There's no need for personalities to get in the way of that.'

It is a technique that sets Primark apart from the rest in the clothing retail world, where Philip Green, Stuart Rose et al fight increasingly personal battles via the business pages of newspapers. Lancaster believes the link with the customer is more important than all that boardroom wrangling.

'I'm aware that we could irritate consumers if we are seen to be crowing about our popularity,' he explains. 'We are only in this position because our customers put us here. We don't want them to think we're getting greedy.'

Lancaster is more keen to ensure that Primark's 'story' should always be a sustainable, real one, based on the truth of the store's value offering. 'We don't need to spend millions on ads with supermodels because we have a genuine USP that customers recognise.' To this end, Primark employs a single freelance PR professional, but her role is mainly a reactive one, making sure that journalists can access the information they need.

Privacy is a characteristic that comes right from the very top. Primark's chief executive Arthur Ryan – and ABF's, George Weston – are both very personal individuals. They believe their role, and that of their managers, is simply to run the company, rather than create a smokescreen of publicity – something that all managers are briefed on. Take the change of chief exec in April last year, when 41-year-old Weston replaced Peter Jackson at ABF. Most FTSE 100 companies would have used this as an ideal hook to sell-in features about the company's strategy and direction. Lancaster quietly posted a two-sentence statement on ABF's website.

Surprisingly, this level of PR is an improvement on just a few years ago. Corporate PR was totally off the radar for ABF prior to 2000, when Lancaster was brought in from the company's subsidiary British Sugar.

Although Citigate Dewe Rogerson was retained for communication with City media, there was no in-house PR.

Back then the company had no cuttings service and this was one of the first areas for Lancaster to remedy. Under his stewardship, ABF has also started to engage more with the CSR community, articularly where it coincides with investor relations. In the past year Lancaster has been active in the creation of the London Stock Exchange's Corporate Responsibility Exchange, which offers a standard questionnaire to measure companies' CSR activities.

Thanks to the breadth of ABF's business areas – it also owns Twinings, Ryvita and Kingsmill – plus the fact he is the sole PR practitioner, Lancaster has what must be one of the most varied jobs in PR. His days can encompass everything from dealing with investor relations to supervising Primark's consumer PR. 'My colleagues in the corporate centre are always amused to hear me on the phone talking about the cut of jackets, but they're used to it now,' he laughs.

He admits that managers in the food businesses of ABF are a little bemused by the sudden fame of Primark, but its profile is now a significant driver of share price. When the main Primark factory in Lutterworth burnt down in November, it was covered in the business pages of many newspapers. Stories were generally positive, reflecting Lancaster's briefing that although the fire destroyed half of Primark's stock, thanks to its daily delivery to stores this wasn't as catastrophic as it would have been for other clothing retailers.

Uncontrollable image
The really bizarre thing, says Lancaster, is that ABF's share price rose after the fire. Although this could have been influenced by a 'noticeable' rise in sales afterwards as a spate of panic-buying kicked in, Lancaster feels it is one more illustration of the fact that companies cannot ultimately control how they are valued and presented in the media.

This was also borne out by Primark's coverage in The Money Programme episode that did eventually air in late November.

Although Lancaster refused interview requests, the BBC found its own way around this by sending a journalist and film crew to the Prima Fashion Awards, where they interviewed Primark's HR director, Breege O'Donoghue – who was picking up the store's award for Best Value High Street Retailer.

Shortly before the programme was screened, Lancaster discovered why the BBC was so keen to secure an interview: Primark was the main subject of the show. Marks & Spencer chief executive Stuart Rose and Per Una creator George Davis were both featured, making subtly disparaging remarks about their successful rival.

The programme also featured an interview with Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, who believed the Primark phenomenon had been 'over-egged'. 'It's only been on our radar for six months,' she said. 'I wouldn't bet on it doing better than other stores in a year's time.'

Lancaster bridles at this, noting that Primark's steady growth over a period of six years can hardly constitute a flash in the pan.

This year will bring a slight change of tack. Primark will launch in Spain in the spring with a proactive media campaign, delivered by a local PR agency. The move takes Primark to the home of fashion conglomerate Inditex – home of the ground-breaking Zara and Mango brands. And as the 60 per cent rise in the 120-strong Primark chain continues, the brand is likely to make up with sheer physical presence what it may lose in fashion cachet.

And Lancaster's philosophical attitude to media coverage of the retailer remains. 'We can't sustain last year's level of coverage ,' he admits. 'But it has been good, especially as we spent virtually nothing to get it.'

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