Morrisons' comms director Richard Taylor on his approach to PR

Morrisons' comms director tells Nikki Wicks why the food retailer's PR strategy is based on backing up stories with facts.

Keeping comms simple: Richard Taylor
Keeping comms simple: Richard Taylor

With more than 12 million people walking through the doors of Morrisons each week, director of corporate affairs and comms Richard Taylor tries to enjoy the diversity of issues his press office might have to handle on any given day - regardless of how strange they may be.

So when three undertakers left a corpse in a coffin outside a Morrisons store in Tamworth this month and popped in for a cup of tea, he ignored the headlines and simply stayed focused on key messages. For Taylor, that is 'busting the myth that only rich people can afford to eat well'.

Taylor arrives for PRWeek's interview straight from the BBC, where he was called in to discuss the surprise fall in food costs for the Six O'Clock News.

It was revealed this month that inflation fell unexpectedly in March as supermarket price wars led to an overall drop in the cost of food. 'It's not a surprise for us,' declares Taylor. 'We've been working hard to keep food inflation prices down.'

From its humble beginnings at Bradford market in 1899, Morrisons has grown to become the UK's fourth largest food retailer with more than 400 stores nationwide.

The chain prides itself on sourcing and processing more fresh food than its competitors and claims to do so through its own manufacturing facilities, giving more control over quality.

'We believe you can come to Morrisons and buy the best steaks, the best fish and the best bread at a price that is affordable to everyone,' says Taylor. And getting this message across is at the top of his agenda. His primary concern is making journalists understand how the retailer is different.

Taylor says one of the key reputational issues facing the supermarket chain comes from the geographical location of the UK media industry. He believes that because the traditionally northern Morrisons has a lower presence in London and the south east, 'where most journalists and media live', fewer people in the industry shop at the chain.

'The number one challenge is that a lot of people in the media world don't know Morrisons. We need them to understand us better.' But it is a challenge Taylor relishes.

Having spent more than half of his career in politics, he became adept at 'hearing voters bemoaning that all political parties are the same'. And for him, it is no different in food retail.

'We're telling stories, and that applies in politics, in an agency and in-house.

Often we're trying to solve complex problems and communicate them in a way people can understand.' Taylor joined Morrisons in 2008 after four years at public affairs and comms consultancy Portland. Previously he spent three years as a special adviser to former defence secretary Geoff Hoon and worked in the Labour Party's policy unit.

Tim Allan, former colleague and founder of Portland, praises Taylor for his honest and insightful approach: 'He was a superb consultant because he gave clients insightful advice, based on what he thought, not what he thought they wanted to hear. He was a key figure in Portland's early growth and I was sorry to see him leave, but short of moving the company to Yorkshire, there was nothing I could do to keep him.'

Taylor will be chairing the forthcoming PRWeek Big Idea Conference on 24 May, where industry heads will be debating hot issues and discussing the future of the industry. So what are his big ideas?

'I've always thought that in comms, keeping it simple is the best thing to do. Having been a special adviser, people think it's all about spin when actually it's all about substance. It's the easiest thing in the world to tell a story and then be found out later that it wasn't true,' he says.

Taylor's idea that substance is paramount to any story was demonstrated earlier this month when Morrisons became the last major British supermarket to distance itself from a destructive form of tuna fishing.

The supermarket chain said it would change its practices by the end of 2013 - bringing it in line with Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's. Defending claims that Morrisons has been slow to respond to the issue of ethical tuna fishing, Taylor argues that some companies have made great pledges that they are yet to deliver.

'That's why you've got to have the substance as well as the story. Some might say that we've been slow to respond to the issue, but we would say we've done it in a way that is consistent with availability.

'At Morrisons, we're telling a story that is backed up with facts. For me, that is paramount,' he says.

2008: Director of corporate affairs and comms, Morrisons
2004: Partner, Portland
2001: Special adviser, Ministry of Defence
1998: Policy officer, Labour Party
1993: Policy adviser, CBI


What was your biggest career break?

Working for the Labour Party and being a special adviser. There's no better place to get that mix of policy and media relations.

Have you had a notable mentor?

John Cridland, director general at the CBI, was my first boss. He taught me what it means to lead people well and have the skill to distinguish what's important from what's urgent. Also, Tim Allan at Portland, who was a great mentor and instinctively knows what makes a news story.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Have an opinion. Stand out from other people by expressing your views. Too many people are bland by not telling you what they really think. And in communication, it's all about helping people think differently. Also, have empathy. Be able to put yourself in the shoes of the people to whom you are communicating.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

In our search, we are looking for people who think big ideas.

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