Profile: Stephen Humphreys, Royal London Insurance - A mutual PR arrangement/Stephen Humphreys takes on corporate comms at Royal London Insurance

In searching for newspaper cuttings on Royal London Insurance, it quickly becomes clear why the company has appointed its first head of corporate communications. For a mutual insurance company with 137 years of history, there isn’t much coverage to be found.

In searching for newspaper cuttings on Royal London Insurance, it

quickly becomes clear why the company has appointed its first head of

corporate communications. For a mutual insurance company with 137 years

of history, there isn’t much coverage to be found.



Stephen Humphreys, whose last job at United Utilities probably had more

to do with keeping the company out of the press, has a challenging job

ahead of him. ’I’m starting with a clean sheet, which is exciting, but

also quite daunting, because there is a lot of thinking to do.’



Recent years have seen a lot of changes in the financial services sector

with building societies transforming into banks. Like the majority of

companies in this sector Royal London has reviewed its processes and

this has led to the creation of Humphreys’ post. Until his appointment

(PR Week, 19 June) media queries were handled by the marketing

department and Royal London had no pro-active communications on the

media and public affairs side.



Humphreys says he is fortunate that Mike Yardley, the insurance

company’s chief executive, is keen to involve himself in communications

and understands how it fits into the management structure.



Yardley took up his post in April, and immediately declared his

intention to keep Royal London a mutual company and stated his

commitment to communications.



Humphreys is no stranger to the debate on mutual versus PLC status. In

his first job, media relations manager at Abbey National, he witnessed

the transition from building society to bank in 1989. ’It was exciting

because it was the first one,’ he says. ’As a building society we were

of little interest to the City and analysts. Suddenly we were dealing

with a whole new audience.’



The task now facing Humphreys is very different to his time at water and

power company United Utilities, where he worked very closely with

chairman Sir Desmond Pitcher. Pitcher, dubbed ’king of the fat cats’

some years ago by Ian McCartney, currently Labour trade and industry

minister, stood down in October last year after clashes with

shareholders and directors over his management style.



Humphreys is diplomatic about the tempestuous time United Utilities went

through in the run up to Pitcher’s departure. He lived through the

sacking of its chief executive Brian Staples, not to mention a drought,

only to find that the communications function was to be downsized under

Derek Green, the new chief executive. Was he asked to leave, or did he

want to? ’A bit of both,’ is his tactful reply.



He recalls a telephone conversation one Saturday morning with Pitcher,

whose house had just been fire bombed. ’That was a completely different

sort of pressure - your PR training is overtaken by a more human

response.’



’I gained experience of coping with media in a pressured situation,’

Humphreys says. ’Persuading people to take advice when it was

appropriate was at times a bit of a challenge.’ The big factor in

working with utilities, he says, is dealing with the fact that customer

expectations are higher after privatisation.



Humphreys, allegedly known to chums by the inappropriately cuddly

nickname of ’Humph’, maintains a ’healthy degree of contempt for the

consultancy world’, according to one friend. He describes himself as a

calm and analytical character. It is a view which is reinforced by

George Pitcher, chief executive at Luther Pendragon, who worked with

Humphreys at United Utilities, and came to know him during their

previous incarnations as journalist and Abbey National PR man

respectively. ’His affable exterior conceals a steely ability to analyse

and assess situations,’ says Pitcher. He adds: ’He is not shy of

expressing strong opinions and not fazed by senior statesmanship, which

is all too rare in an in-house function. The market is full of

ingratiating yes men.’



The ability to scrutinise the pros and cons of strategy certainly stands

any public relations professional in good stead. People tell me that

sometimes when I’m being analytical they think I am being gloomy,’

Humphreys mulls. ’But I’m simply weighing things up.’



HIGHLIGHTS

1988

Media manager, Abbey National

1994

Media relations manager and head of public policy, United Utilities

1998

Head of corporate communications, Royal London Insurance



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