PROFILE: Queen of the high street

Helen Dickinson, Head of press and PR at John Lewis, has helped forge the modern image of the retailer as the stalwart of the high street.

Helen Dickinson
Helen Dickinson

Each January, the business media wait with bated breath for retailers to report their Christmas sales figures, ready to make doom and gloom predictions for the year ahead. The past week has seen plenty of negative headlines, with The Daily Telegraph declaring ‘blood on the high street', and heavy hitters such as Marks & Spencer reporting dec­lining sales.

Somehow though, the John Lewis Partnership has bucked the trend, ending the holiday season with sales up by more than seven per cent year on year.

‘The death of the high street?' laughs John Lewis head of press and PR Helen Dickinson. ‘We beg to differ.'

Indeed, the chain generally manages to avoid being lumped in with its competitors, is rarely painted in a negative light and is beloved by the media and shoppers alike. John Lewis claimed the top spot in this year's Consumer Satisfaction Index, released last week by retail analyst Verdict, with its food arm Waitrose coming in second.

While the customer's in-store experience certainly plays a dominant role in maintaining this reputation, part of the credit must go to Dickinson, who has helped forge the modern image of John Lewis as the stalwart of the high street.

‘I was given a blank piece of paper to start with,' says Dickinson of the company's PR efforts. ‘When I started at Waitrose as chief press officer in 1995, there was very little PR. At that stage, there was me, one other PRO and a copywriter. I thought, what's a copywriter? It was foreign to me, coming from broadcasting, to pay someone to write something.'

Dickinson's background in broadcast is impressive if incongruous, and certainly a departure from the typical PRO career ladder. As a TV producer and director, her credits include a documentary on the life and works of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, which featured interviews with his children and excerpts of his work, read by Dame Judi Dench.

‘I wrote it over two or three days,' she says of the film. ‘I also did a six-part series on organised crime in the US. I went to Guatemala and the Philippines for a documentary on human rights abuses. But it was a selfish occupation. I would work through the night and I just wanted to sleep.'

Her exhaustion, coupled with her young son's pleading, led Dickinson to a media relations role at the Food and Drink Federation, where she spent her first few weeks immersed in nutrition textbooks and trying to learn the PR trade.

‘It was like a university course crammed into three months,' she says. ‘But I can bore for England on trans fatty acids.'

An ad in PRWeek three months later led Dickinson to Waitrose, which she claims was always her ‘favourite shop'. Dickinson's former boss Paul Burden, a veteran BBC broadcaster and one-time director of comms at John Lewis, remembers Dickinson's early efforts for the sup­ermarket. ‘It's a fairly reticent company,' he says. ‘She was given the brief of making the Waitrose brand better known to the world, and she did that.

The Partnership as a whole has historically been rather shy about stating its case publicly, which is a shame as it has a story to tell. The executives with which Helen was working were awake to the scope for John Lewis to say more. Helen did an exceptional job of it.'

Dickinson is well known both in the PR industry and the media for her decade-long relationships with business journalists, particularly those covering commerce and retail. The Guardian's city editor Julia Finch believes Dickinson's career in TV has been crucial in forming these ties. ‘Her background in broadcasting means she knows what the game is,' says Finch. ‘She knows exactly what I want and delivers it.

However, she's representing a business that's doing extremely well. You can't achieve good coverage for a company if it's not performing. That said, she builds relationships with journalists, and I trust her in a way I don't trust some others.'

Now, after 12 years in the industry, Dickinson leads a team of 14, with five agencies reporting to her. Delia Hyde has worked with Dickinson for more than a decade - first as MD of The SPA Way, and now as head of Rain Communications - both ret­ained by John Lewis. Hyde and her team worked with Dickinson on one of the most high-profile fashion stories of the past calendar year: the size 12 model campaign.

Hyde and Dickinson decided to capitalise on the much-publicised ‘size zero' row. John Lewis hired a size 12 model to shoot its summer swimsuit campaign, securing mountains of coverage in the process.

‘We watched and waited for the topic to get hot around London Fashion Week,' says Hyde. ‘Helen loved the idea, but the best part of working with her is the quick turnaround. It took 24 hours.'

This year, although the John Lewis Partnership looks set to continue its high street reign, Dickinson will have no time to rest on her laurels. With the manic Christmas season over, she will be concentrating on the announcement of the chain's annual bonus for its 68,000 ‘partners', followed by the hectic Valentine's and Mother's Day celebrations.

She will also be pushing a range of ethically sourced products and working on the chain's internal comms programme. If she left TV to get more sleep, perhaps she made the wrong decision?

‘Last weekend I was up late on Saturday night reading sales figures from the branches,' admits Dickinson. ‘I put draft press releases together on Sunday.'
At least she is guaranteed the help of the agencies on her roster. ‘We all overservice John Lewis by at least 100 per cent,' says Hyde. ‘We all want to impress Helen.'

CV
2000 Head of press and PR, John Lewis
1995 Head of press and PR, Waitrose
1995 Media relations manager, Food and Drink Federation
1991 Producer/director, Landseer Films
1989 Producer/director, Pineapple Productions
1975 Researcher, Thames Television

TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?
There were two. First when I made the tough decision to leave television after a long career and got a job with the Food and Drink Federation. There I went through a virtual ‘crash course' in food issues that led ultimately to my being offered the head of press role at Waitrose.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Be focused on an end goal but be aware that skills you acquire are transferable. Keep an eye out for other opportunities that could fast-track your career. Be supportive, flexible, enthusiastic and show initiative. Be prepared to go that extra mile.

Who was your most notable mentor?
In television, Derek Bailey, MD of Landseer Films. He pushed me way beyond my comfort zone, catapulting me into managing huge budgets and programme schedules. In PR, Paul Burden, whose understanding of the John Lewis Partnership model was informative and his admiration infectious.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
A willingness to do what's needed to get the job done. Enthusiasm and clear potential to be self-starters. A demonstrable commitment to the business and an understanding of targets to be achieved, coupled with a questioning mind.

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