Corporate Structure: PR takes first steps in rising to new heights - When Simon Lewis returns to Centrica, it will be in a senior management role is encouraging for those who believe communications is being seen as a central business discipline

Look at the very top of the UK’s leading companies and you will find plenty of ex-finance directors and marketing chiefs. You will come across former operating division heads who have stepped up to group managing director or chief executive level. While at younger companies that have rapidly grown into major players, entrepreneurial founders may still hold the reins of power.

Look at the very top of the UK’s leading companies and you will

find plenty of ex-finance directors and marketing chiefs. You will come

across former operating division heads who have stepped up to group

managing director or chief executive level. While at younger companies

that have rapidly grown into major players, entrepreneurial founders may

still hold the reins of power.



A recent survey of FTSE 100 company bosses by Management Today found 36

per cent had come from finance backgrounds, 17 per cent from

accountancy, 13 per cent from marketing and 11 per cent from general

management.



Only one had communications experience: Glaxo Wellcome chief executive

Robert Ingram described his route to the top as through

government/public affairs.



Despite an increasing recognition of the importance of PR at boardroom

level and in an age when corporate reputation is all, a career in PR

would still appear to be inadequate qualification for a key business

role.



But it is also possible to draw the conclusion that the situation may be

changing, albeit gradually.



Last week it became clear that Centrica’s former group corporate affairs

director Simon Lewis, who recently began a two-year secondment to

Buckingham Palace as communications secretary, will (when his tenure

advising the Queen comes to an end) return to Centrica in a ’general

management role’, probably running one of its businesses. What he has

learnt from a career in PR, argues Lewis, will help him in this

task.



’Any significant general management role has a very big communications

element,’ says Lewis. ’Communications is integral to the job. So I won’t

be turning my back on what I’ve done for the past 15 years, I’ll be

building on it.’



So is a career in corporate communications good preparation for a bigger

management job? Virgin Group corporate affairs director Will Whitehorn

thinks so, pointing out that some senior in-house staff are given

responsibilities that extend far beyond the broadest definition of PR.

Whitehorn himself is often involved in looking at new business

opportunities for Virgin, including acquisitions.



’Generally I think that a lot of companies in Britain still don’t give

enough importance to the role of corporate affairs in their decisions

about their business,’ says Whitehorn. ’But at Virgin it’s at the heart

of what we do.



’A lot of PR people are good business people in their own right. If you

look at Matthew Freud he’s definitely branched out of PR in the last few

years. Ventures like Quo Vadis have been successful for him.’



But Freud, the founder and chairman of Freud Communications, thinks that

PR skills per se are not a passport to success in business and must be

complemented by a fundamental understanding of how business works and

the capacity to ’add value’ to a venture, whatever its nature.



’I’ve always felt that PR was a very fast track to nowhere very much,’

says Freud. ’The PR skill set is very specific to PR. And there aren’t

too many examples of ex-PR people who litter the chambers of power.’



The specific nature of PR means that practitioners tend to stay within

the discipline. Even though many senior agency and in-house staff have a

deep appreciation of all elements of the marketing mix, few are invited

to become marketing directors: a job which could be a springboard to

higher things within a company.



But there are always exceptions. Talented people are breaking out of

pigeon holes. Lewis, of course, is one - although exactly what his next

job will be is far from evident. A second one-time IPR president Pamela

Taylor is another. She is now chief executive of water industry trade

body Water UK, following a career which encompassed 15 years as BMA

public affairs director and two years as corporate affairs director at

the BBC.



There are other notable success stories, among them Lorraine

Langham.



Having built her career in local government PR, she is now executive

director at Hackney Council.



’One of the issues for the industry is how PR people break through the

ceiling,’ says Langham. ’There’s not a clear professional development

route. From my perspective I think people with a PR background have a

lot to offer: they understand organisations’ business objectives, are

able to look at issues from other people’s points of view and have

developed the robust skills to tell it how it is.’



First and 42nd managing director Alison Canning thinks that it is only a

matter of time before more PR professionals are given bigger management

roles. Part of the reason why she set up her consultancy, which

specialises in strategic advice at the highest level, is because she

believes that communications is beginning to be recognised as ’the

central business discipline.’



’Of all the communications disciplines PR is the broadest,’ says

Canning.



’It embraces the widest range of techniques and applies them to the

broadest audiences.



It’s only a matter of time before you get the Paul Barbers (Barclays

Bank Retail Financial Services communications director) and Simon

Lewises of this world taking on broader business roles. One of these

days someone like that is going to become a chief executive.’



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