While visiting a medical researcher as part of his job as director
of communications at the charity Action Research, John Grounds'
attention turned to the vast collection of baby photographs adorning one
of the office walls.
'The researcher said they were all babies who were alive due to the work
of Action Research. For me that sums up the driving force behind what my
job is. It shows there is a direct relationship between PR and people's
lives,' he says.
This may seem like mere sentimental spin, especially as Grounds, who in
January becomes the NSPCC's PR chief, is one of the voluntary sector's
most experienced communicators.
But his CV does show a consistency in his choice of jobs - CND,
Barnardo's, Action Research and the NSPCC - that gives weight to his
view that PR can be a truly caring profession. Even when he wanted
corporate experience he was drawn to the Body Shop, known as much for
its social responsibility as its cosmetics.
When asked what irritates him in his work, his answer is 'the bad press
that PR as an industry gets. Many journalists are only interested in bad
practice. PR people are human beings, believe it or not, although you
wouldn't believe it from some of the things that are printed.'
Grounds' PR career started while a politics and French student at
Reading University in the late 1980s, when he helped CND to produce its
After university he continued his writing, a passion made more fierce by
his move from Essex to London. Articles for former Time Out rival City
Limits followed, as did a book - London: A Living Guide.
But his passion for a cause and belief in PR won out, and in 1990 he
rejoined CND, this time as head of PR and campaigns. Although there was
a brief resurgence during the Gulf War, this was a time, like so many in
the peace movement's history, when membership was on the wane.
Although Grounds says this concerned him, he admits defeat in his
attempt to keep CND consistently strong, something the organisation
still struggles to achieve. Grounds says: 'To a lot of supporters,
organisations like Greenpeace seemed to become more relevant. The fall
of the Berlin Wall and progress in arms talks made it harder.'
CND campaigns officer Tony Myers was in the same team as Grounds. He
says: 'Some people you remember, some you don't, some are genuine, some
aren't - but John we all remember.
It seemed like he'd done a lot of PR work before, knew his stuff and was
a really nice, genuine guy.'
A year later Grounds moved to the Body Shop, taking him for the first
(and only) time into the business world: 'Joining the Body Shop was not
a departure from social responsibility. It's an active campaigner and
that attracted me.'
During his five-year spell there he moved from PRO to head of
international PR, scooped two PRWeek In-house Team of the Year awards
and another two for International Campaign of the Year. By the time he
left to join Barnardo's, he was acting head of corporate
Barnardo's reinforced his commitment to internal relations. The charity
was at a crossroads; despite its campaigning it was still viewed as
merely the manager of orphanages. 'We hadn't done that for years. We
needed to speak to staff and volunteers in developing a new
Barnardo's director of marketing and communications Andrew Nebel says:
'He's terrifically motivated and passionate about making a difference in
Grounds's move from east London-based Barnardo's to Action Research,
based near his home in Horsham, West Sussex, was partly motivated by his
desire to take the high status PR job. But the main reason was his role
as a father and fear that the commute around the M25 was costing him too
much time with his son, now 11.
Grounds speaks passionately about Action Research's work, which has
raised funds for medical research for 50 years. He particularly
remembers his time with the McConnell family, who helped an AR campaign
to change regulations on administering adult drugs to children. Their
daughter Lexi had died after being given an inappropriate steroid while
being treated for a routine eye injury.
'People don't know what the media can be like,' says Grounds. 'But they
are, on the whole, there to help campaigns and it is vital we handle PR
right to protect families.'
Grounds describes the NSPCC job as one of the biggest in his field. He
is, though, diplomatic when asked if he has plans for widespread change,
saying 'it's got a high profile and a good set-up - my role is to use my
experience to help.'
What's more, the commute to central London still allows him time with
his son: 'I'm a father before anything else,' he says.
Sounds as if the PR for his new employers has started in earnest.
1990: Head of PR/campaigns, CND
1991: Head of int'national PR, The Body Shop
1996: Head of comms/ads, Barnardo's
1998: Director of campaigns/comms , Action Research
2002: Comms director, NSPCC