Profile: Chris Wermann, regional director of corporate affairs, Europe, Kellogg's

Kellogg's comms boss is rising to the challenge of dealing with heightened public emotions around food. Cathy Wallace reports.

Chris Wermann
Chris Wermann

One would hazard a guess that not many comms professionals have planned their careers to the extent that Chris Wermann has.

'When I was working for Woolwich, the director of comms said to me, "if you want my job in future, you need media relations, internal comms, corporate responsibility, public affairs and investor relations under your belt",' he recalls. Fast-forward some 18 years, through employers ranging from FD to Royal Bank of Scotland, and Wermann, 45, is the complete package, with a role at Kellogg's to test his considerable skills and abilities on a daily basis.

PRWeek met Wermann as Kellogg's announced new nutritional standards in Coco Pops - including a 15 per cent reduction in sugar - and a brand new product, Coco Pops Choc 'N' Roll, which is lower in salt and sugar, and higher in fibre. The company has faced sustained criticism over the contents and marketing of its products, from complaints to the ASA about misleading claims in advertising, to controversy over the positioning of outdoor posters near schools advocating Coco Pops as an ideal after-school snack.

Kellogg's has apologised for the latter and pledged it would not happen again.

A recent PRWeek/OnePoll Reputation Survey also pinpointed Kellogg's as the manufacturer of food high in fat, salt and sugar that the public considers least responsible. However, the firm disputes this, having carried out its own survey with OnePoll that found Kellogg's was the manufacturer of food high in fat, salt and sugar the public felt acted in the most responsible way. Kellogg's PR team argues the difference in results is a result of PRWeek's original question being 'misleading'.

Wermann acknowledges his time at Kellogg's has coincided with a hugely heightened public awareness of what goes into the food we eat.

'What drove this trend was a World Health Organization report at the end of 2003 that looked at why people were becoming obese and where to point the finger. The organisation looked at what the Government was doing around healthcare and preventative healthcare, then it looked at the commercial sector and what was driving what people eat.'

The WHO report, along with initiatives such as Jamie Oliver's school dinners crusade and an increased media focus on the growing gap between fat and thin, turned the spotlight on to the contents of our breakfast, lunch and dinner plates as never before. Inevitably, the food industry has had to deal with sustained criticism, particularly around marketing practices.

As a manufacturer strongly associated with children, Kellogg's has had to face arguably more than its fair share of criticism. But as Wermann points out: 'Marketing influences decisions between one brand and another. Marketing does not dictate what people eat, or how much of it they eat.'

Wermann is persuasive, but never in an aggressive way. 'He's a top bloke really,' says Julian Hunt, comms director at the Food and Drink Federation. 'We are lucky to have people like him to work with. He makes it enjoyable.'

Wermann also makes a compelling case that the issue of targeting and communicating to children is not one-sided.

'There are mums who are happy they have got their children to eat Rice Krispies, because Snap, Crackle and Pop are fun, and they make a nice noise and they are FSA compliant. We should be using marketing to get children to eat these products; we want them to eat healthier products.'

He also points to positive initiatives that the media largely ignore: 'We were a founding partner of Change4Life, and I have been on stage talking about our breakfast clubs. More than one million breakfasts a year are provided through some of the clubs we have set up.'

As he talks, Wermann's passion for comms taking centre stage within a business becomes evident. Two-and-a-half years ago, he took the decision to in-source all of Kellogg's PR activity. 'PR needed to become part of the business planning process. A PR manager will sit next to a brand manager, a marketing manager and a sales manager and say, "here is what we want, how are we going to do it?".'

Kellogg's still uses specialist agencies, but all the day-to-day work is handled in-house. 'That's what people want when they ring Kellogg's,' says Wermann. 'They want to speak to Kellogg's. We have more than quadrupled our media coverage, negative coverage has gone down and our relationship with the Government has been significant in terms of knowing what it is thinking and helping to influence what it is thinking.'


Chris Wermann's turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

Joining the Woolwich press office from being in branch and project management on the graduate fast track scheme, and being let loose with the media and the board from day one. Understanding how a business should be run established my interest in comms at an early age.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Tim Mobsby, Kellogg's European president. His calm and decisive management style leads a hugely successful culture within the region that extracts the best from employees and gets the job done.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Try a number of different things early in your career. Then set out a clear path on how to get the skills for the top job in you chosen career. Play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses. You may find that you really enjoy the written word, but hate calling up journalists - so your career path will be internal comms.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

A personable style, a team player, bright, quick and dedicated to both thinking and delivering.

 

CV

2004 Regional director of corporate affairs, Europe, Kellogg's

2002 Director of comms EMEA, Avis Europe

2000 Deputy director, group comms, Royal Bank of Scotland Group

1999 Head of corporate affairs, Direct Line

1997 Consultant, FD

1994 Head of PR, Abbey National

1991 Media relations manager, Woolwich

1987 Manager, Woolwich

1986 Financial consultant, Legal & General

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