Giselle Davies is in a curious position. She is one of the top sports PR people in the world, but 2009 suddenly finds her (voluntarily) unemployed.
In December she left the International Olympic Committee (IOC), swapping six years as head of comms at its Lausanne HQ for the sunnier climes of Dubai. The move is for personal rather than professional reasons, with Davies following her banking analyst boyfriend to the Gulf.
Despite the move, her experience of Swiss winters helps her endure an hour of PRWeek photographs in Arctic temperatures with good humour. Davies’ coat – ‘It’s not fur,’ she adds quickly – is an elegant twist on the one football commentator John Motson used to be seen wearing on freezing Saturdays at Anfield.
This is appropriate: her father is Motty’s fellow sports commentator Barry Davies.
His daughter looks younger than 39 and possesses cheekbones on which one could cut diamonds. This may be why the rec-ruiter who put her up for interview with the IOC told her she ‘lacked gravitas’. Davies, who read economics at Cambridge and speaks fluent French, was not amused.
She got the job, and three years later must have been applauding the skills of another top PR man, Tony Blair, in securing the 2012 Olympic Games for London in 2005. The then Prime Minister’s one-on-ones with IOC delegates in a Singapore hotel room were said to be crucial in swinging the vote.
‘It was a team effort,’ she says evenly. ‘London played it very well. The team off-ered a vision that made the IOC members sit up and listen. It was a very professional presentation, polished and human. ’
Davies admits she found life tough to start with at the IOC. ‘It was a step up,’ she says. This is an understatement. Davies had previously worked in the rough and tumble world of Formula 1 motor racing but the politics at the IOC are, says one seasoned observer, ‘like three-dimensional chess’.
‘It’s more about issues management,’ agrees Davies. When she took over comms, the organisation’s reputation needed repolishing after a bribery scandal around the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City that saw several IOC delegates dismissed.
And at last summer’s Olympics it was Davies, as IOC spokeswoman, who was called upon to publicly defend the IOC’s decision to award Beijing the Games in the first place, given China’s human rights record. There were protests from the Free Tibet movement, among others, during the torch relay, along with the ever-present issues of dope cheats, government restrictions on the media, a ban on Iraqi athletes and concerns over terrorism.
As well as being IOC spokeswoman, she was also responsible for developing a comms strategy. On this topic, Davies makes a telling comment about the successful London 2012 bid: ‘The team understood the importance of comms in strategy,’ she says.
It is by no means clear the IOC itself understands this when it comes to its own business. ‘The IOC has not been as proactive as some people think it should be in telling its story,’ says BBC London Olympics correspondent Adrian Warner. He does not think this is Davies’ fault – and although she will not say so, Davies must have been frustrated at an organisation that seems to value caution above proactivity.
Support is needed to change an org-anisation, and getting that support from multiple stakeholders is a tough ask.
Still, Davies is no shrinking violet. At the Jordan and Benetton F1 teams she had no time for detractors such as Beverley Turner, the former ITV commentator who spilled the sexist beans on motor racing in her book The Pits. ‘F1 is straight up and as you find it,’ she says with slight exasperation. ‘It’s about fast cars and the men who drive them. It’s sport, business and entertainment.’
Davies can also be demanding. John Postlethwaite, now a sports entrepreneur but formerly her marketing director at Benetton F1, says: ‘At the start she had a tendency to be a bit sharp under pressure, but she learned how to handle things.’
Some of her IOC comms team still talk of having needed a flak jacket before entering her office. ‘That was quite hard to hear,’ adm-its Davies. ‘I think of myself as quite soft – but I expect a certain level of confidence, ability, delivery. I’m a direct person and perhaps I could have taken more time with people. I think I softened a bit. I hope so.’
As for her next move, ‘it won’t necessarily be sport,’ she says. ‘I want to open my mind and see where it will lead.’
But if the organisers of London 2012 are after a clear head, Olympic comms expertise and an unparalleled contacts book, they might do well to call her at some point in the near future.
Giselle Davies’ turning points
What was your biggest career break?
There are two. Seven years in Formula 1 was ultimately a platform to get me noticed. And I was put up for interview for the IOC job even though the recruiter said: ‘You are not what the client thinks they are looking for.’
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
It’s important to take time with people. If you only phone someone when you need something from them, you’re going about it the wrong way. You also need the ability to bring your strengths to the role but not to be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
Have you had a notable mentor?
Eddie [Jordan, founder of Jordan Grand Prix] was a wonderful go-getter. When I got the IOC interview
I sat down with John Postlethwaite, who will tell you home truths are critical. Thierry Sprunger, chief financial officer of the IOC, has given me good advice along the way.
What do you prize in new recruits?
A brain and a sense of humour. I also can’t abide people who are lazy and won’t go the extra mile.
December 2008 Leaves the IOC
August 2008 Oversees comms at Beijing Olympics
2002 Director of comms, IOC
1997 Head of press and PR, promoted to head of corporate comms, Jordan Grand Prix
1996 Press officer, Benetton Ford F1
1994 Graduate trainee account executive, Scope Sponsorship (now Ketchum)