Profile: James Harkness, Burson-Marsteller - Hands-on approach to corporate comms/B-M’s James Harkness believes tailoring change communication is best

A degree course speciality in Nazi propaganda is not the most obvious start to a career in change management, but James Harkness, the newly-appointed managing director of Burson-Marsteller’s change communication practice, says it did start him thinking.

A degree course speciality in Nazi propaganda is not the most

obvious start to a career in change management, but James Harkness, the

newly-appointed managing director of Burson-Marsteller’s change

communication practice, says it did start him thinking.

’It’s all truly evil, but it was very interesting to see how people are

brought to believing things, the power of communication,’ he says,

without even a hint of a Machiavellian gleam in his eye.

Neither is it a body of thought you would ever associate with this

friendly, mild-mannered man with the tinge of a Northern Irish accent.

He professes to be passionate about his work and to being a serial

visitor to Thailand on account of the food and beaches. He has been 12

times in ten years to be precise.

Taken on by Burson-Marsteller on Valentine’s Day this year, his remit is

to develop the company’s change communication package. This includes the

start-up of dedicated change communication teams at B-M’s French,

German, Asian and South American offices within the next year. Harkness

stresses the importance of recruiting locally for these positions,

maintaining that an intimate knowledge of local culture is essential for

successful communication.

’We have to make sure that the communication solutions we offer will

work on a global basis. This means not only working with the company’s

creative, marketing and HR departments, but also means making sure our

staff know how to apply what we do in specific geographic contexts.’

It was the global scope, and a senior management commitment to worldwide

investment that drew Harkness to B-M. He came from UK/US focused Banner

McBride, where as a founding member and MD he helped start up a

dedicated change communication company within the WPP group. He says he

was attracted to B-M by the prospect of having a blank sheet on which to

develop a new change communication ethos, and having come from an

in-house position, felt he had something special to offer.

As Head of Global Internal Communications at The Body Shop he was able

to see in action the communication mechanisms he had set up. ’There was

a real commitment at senior management level to creating a dialogue with

staff about what the company wanted to do, and to getting genuine

feedback from staff,’ he says.

’James is genuinely interested in making sure people get what they need,

he’s really good at empathising, both with his team and with clients,’

says Cliff Ettridge, a former colleague at The Body Shop and Banner


He describes Harkness as a man who can inject a sense of fun and purpose

into a team, who can make a party swing, but who is less confident when

talking about himself.

’He would much rather the limelight was on others - he’d be a great

silent partner,’ he says.

Harkness comes across as being very focused, and admits to being

frustrated at what he calls ’pointless processes’ that deflect attention

from client requirements. His solutions to client change communication

requirements hang on the tenet that staff need to see a business

justification for change, and that this perception can be enhanced

through staff involvement and the recognition of good work.

He also reinforces the need to tailor the solutions to the particular

client. ’Singing and chanting do work in some places, but in others,

what you need is a drinks trolley that comes round at 5pm on a Friday.

It doesn’t matter what it is, the important thing is that it does


Harkness stands out from other consultants, according to former client

David Blake at the Woolwich. ’He is impressively practical and very

thoughtful. Many people in our industry talk a lot but aren’t good at


The practical, focused man in the pin-striped suit fades as he gets

closer to home, which for the last six years has been an old telephone

exchange outside Guildford. Planning permission to convert the exchange

into a residence has lapsed. Perhaps, as a perfectionist, he is so

hindered by the desire to get it absolutely right that he has never

actually started.

He stops short at the suggestion, but then concedes that this is indeed

he case. ’There has never been a right time to do it,’ he explains,

rather sheepishly.

His confidence in his abilities and enthusiasm for his work are


’I do believe that what we are doing is absolutely solid and I think my

own passion convinces those I work with, both team and clients,’ he

says, pin-stripes firmly in place once again.

Top tip? ’If you want to get your own way with him, just take him out

for a Thai meal,’ Ettridge advises. So now you know.



Head of global internal communications, The Body Shop


Managing director and founding member, Banner McBride


Managing director, change communication, Burson-Marsteller

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