NEWS ANALYSIS: How important is PR experience?

Can someone who is not from a 'traditional' PR background step into one of the travel industry's biggest in-house comms roles, asks Alex Black.

Thomson’s decision to promote Stephen Lane, its head of product innovation, to the top comms role, surprised many people in the industry last week (PRWeek, 23 March). He looks like becoming comms supremo for the merged TUI Thomson and First Choice operation despite a non-media background.

While his predecessor Rachel O’Reilly was a travel PRO through and through, Lane worked in fashion retail before joining Thomson’s marketing department in 1995 and was promoted to head of product innovation just over two and a half years ago.

His first two tasks in his new role are to rejig the in-house comms team and recruit a PR agency. Are these tasks for someone who has never worked in a PR agency or in-house comms team?

Yes, according to Lane’s boss, Thomson sales director Derek Jones.

Jones admits bringing in an outside PRO was an option, but says Lane’s experience and Thomson’s circumstances made him an ‘ideal’ choice.

‘Stephen already reported in to the board, he has been at the centre of our strategic development and he has the ear of every director in the business.’

Hardly a beginner
Another factor, says Jones, was the strong in-house team already in place.

PR manager Harry Helps was O’Reilly’s number two, and the team also has specialists such as industry affairs exec
Danielle Chapman and internal comms head Elena Brooks.

Brooks keeps Thomson employees abreast of the First Choice merger, thereby taking a mammoth task out of Lane’s in-tray.

‘A strong team gives me the luxury of taking on someone with an in-depth knowledge of the company who is perhaps 80 per cent of the way towards ­doing what the role needs,’ adds Jones.

Lane himself is quick to point out he is hardly a beginner when it comes to PR. He has worked on PR campaigns and been involved in the recruit­ment of PR agencies before.

His appointment, though unu­sual, is not without precedent.

In January, brewing giant Carlsberg added external affairs to the remit of its UK sponsorship chief Gareth Roberts (PRWeek, 9 June 2006).

Like Lane, Roberts had already been involved in PR. He saw enough correlations between sponsorship and public relations to take on the job, and has no regrets about doing so.

‘I don’t think it was a risk for Carlsberg,’ Roberts says. ‘I’d been working on the corporate side anyway, and major sponsorship deals always ­involve the media.’

Roberts was also helped by Carlsberg’s intelligent team restructuring. The internal comms function overseen by his predecessor was shifted into the HR department, freeing him up to ­focus on external affairs.

And just over a year ago, Coca-Cola GB president Charlotte Oades took a specially created top European PR role. Although Oades’ CV boasted a wealth of marketing experience, there was little PR on it. But her willingness to front for Coca-Cola on the food and drink industry’s role in consumer lifestyle meant the company had a ready-made spokesperson who was also one of its top European executives.

If the hiring of Roberts, Oades and Lane were the result of carefully planned restructures, that of Simon Dornan was slightly more haphazard.

A readymade spokesman
Now head of consumer PR at Virgin Mobile, 15 years ago Dornan was store manager of Virgin Megastore’s Coventry branch. Looking for a change of direction, he went for the chain’s press and events manager job.

‘They wanted someone who understood local marketing,’ Dornan recalls. ‘The interview was more of a long chat, but at the end tentatively I said, “Isn’t there PR too?” He said, “Don’t worry, we’ve got an agency for that”.’

He says it took him two years to ‘get my feet under the table’. Once he did, he replaced the PR agency with youth specialist, Cake.

Interestingly, trade body the CIPR is not against people moving from other ­areas of a business into PR.

‘PR is a strategic business function, so people moving from a business management background will have worked as strategic thinkers,’ says CIPR head of education policy Mark Ramsdale.

And there is one sector where hiring ‘an outsider’ is becoming commonplace: finance. This month Tulchan Communications founder Andrew Grant brought the number of ex-City analysts working at his firm to five, when he hired Morgan Stanley senior research analyst David Allchurch.

‘In our sector, the job is much more than just financial media relations,’ says Grant. ‘We work with companies to prepare investment cases and David knows what shareholders want.’

Ultimately, if most of the key pieces are in place, there is no reason someone who is reasonably new to PR cannot make a good head of comms.

Stephen LANE -
Now Head of comms at TUI Thomson
Was Thomson’s head of product innovation
Background Has been with the travel firm since 1995, starting in the marketing department. Prior to Thomson, he worked in fashion retail

Charlotte OADES -
Now Director, corporate identity, public affairs and communications for the Coca-Cola European Union Group
Was president of Coca-Cola GB
Background Spent 18 years in marketing roles before becoming one of Coke’s first female presidents

Gareth ROBERTS -
Now head of external comms and sponsorship, Carlsberg UK
Was
sponsorship controller, Carlsberg UK
Background
A 17-year Carlsberg UK stalwart, Roberts has worked in the brewer’s sales, marketing and sponsorship divisions.

Simon DORNAN -

Now Head of consumer PR, Virgin Mobile
Was
manager of Virgin Megastore in Coventry before becoming the high street chain’s PR and events manager.
Background Since making the leap into PR Dornan has been a campaign manager for Virgin Unite and marketing promotions and events manager at Virgin Mobile rival T-Mobile

 

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