The pioneers that carved out a route to the very top

John Fallon's feat in becoming the first PR man to run a FTSE 100 firm is an inspiration to all young pretenders.

John Waples: Senior MD and UK head of strategic comms at FTI Consulting
John Waples: Senior MD and UK head of strategic comms at FTI Consulting

This industry should make more of the success of John Fallon, who took over earlier this year as chief executive of learning company Pearson to become the first PR man to run a FTSE 100 firm.

Few careers map the evolution of the PR industry from young pretender to boardroom influencer like Fallon's has.

For the army of young graduates who have just taken up their new jobs in the industry, they have reasons to be encouraged.

They are joining an industry where there is now a recognised route for top talent, from the junior consultant to the top.

Nick von Schirnding, the former head of corporate affairs at mining firm Anglo American, was catapulted into the hot seat at Bumi following a barbaric fight between its investors; Sue Clark, former head of corporate affairs at SABMiller, now runs the brewer's substantive European operation.

We should not forget Dame Lucy Neville-Rolfe, who combined her political and media savvy to become one of the most trusted executives when she served under Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco.

After a stint as policy and media adviser to John Prescott, Fallon later became head of comms at Powergen.

He joined Pearson as its comms head, before being promoted to run the international education businesses and then jumping into the hot seat vacated by Marjorie Scardino.

It is an achievement that demonstrates the traction that communication skills have in today's business environment.

It is worth examining why this trend is growing.

As developed countries become more service focused, rather than industrial focused, it is natural for comms to become more critical. But it also reflects the fact corporate affairs touches the operational nerve centre of business.

It is the combined briefs of regulation, public affairs, corporate governance and in many cases investor relations and digital.

It is this oversight that has earned a number of corporate affairs players a seat on the executive board of big companies.

Few other executives have this level of understanding about the multiple communication challenges facing the business for which they work.

Fallon's appointment is a moment to savour. It validates the importance of the industry, demonstrates why it should be a home for talent and shows that for those armed with sufficient ambition, there is a route to high office.

I can name at least 12 FTSE 100 companies and a number of the big investment banks where corporate affairs/comms heads have offices adjoining the CEO.

It will be of little surprise, then, that one of the first people Fallon turned to after his appointment was Luke Swanson, Pearson's head of comms. Swanson is now helping lead the transformation programme.

There are good reasons to be excited about all this, but success comes with a price. As the corporate affairs profile grows, so do expectations, as will the firing and hiring.

John Waples is senior MD and UK head of strategic comms at FTI Consulting.

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