Waterstones MD James Daunt explains departure of senior comms duo

Waterstones has parted company with PR and brand communications staff Fiona Allen and Jon Howells as a result of its strategy to decentralise its retail business.

Waterstones: The bookseller has shed two of its senior comms staff (Julian Dodd)
Waterstones: The bookseller has shed two of its senior comms staff (Julian Dodd)

Head of PR and brand communications Allen has left the business together with PR and brand communications manager  Howells, as reported by The Bookseller earlier this month.

Both joined Waterstones in 2006, with Allen arriving from Penguin with a brief to protect and enhance the chain’s reputation following the acquisition of Ottakar’s, where Howell had worked since 1989.

Waterstones managing director James Daunt told PR Week that the retailer was "in a stable situation and had been for some time now" and that this had lessened the need for a central PR department.

Daunt said: "There are two sides to PR: one part is the defensive side in terms of dealing with crisis and the other side is what you do proactively and positively to communicate your brand to your customers.

"If you look back to when the waters were pretty choppy – when we were part of HMV and doing very badly – we were doing quite a lot defensively and we needed a PR department to react to those issues; whereas now we’re locked in to the trade press and there’s nothing that we’re that sensitive about."

He added: "On the proactive side, most of our effort is done locally now and when we do decide to do something centrally, more often that is tied to advertising money, in which case we would use someone external. We’re not a big enough retailer to have an in-house capability."

Daunt said that brand campaigns such as Waterstones 11, What’s Your Story and Writer’s Year, which Allen and Howells were responsible for, had been "subsumed by various strands of book of the month", which were "very much driven through the bookshops".

He added that while the retailer had national charity partnerships with the Children’s Reading Fund and Children’s Laureate, "we encourage and expect individual shops to work with local charities in their community".

"We’ve taken a big, big journey from a retailer that was all about centralised decision making, where the same books were on sale in every shop around the Waterstones estate, to one where the individual shops are given much more autonomy and are seeking to develop their own identity within their community," said Daunt.

"As a result the central role had really fundamentally changed and when that happens you either have to change with it or you have to ask whether you can still work to the best of your skills and ability; inevitably, when you move from a highly centrally driven model to a decentralised one, that creates problems at the centre."

He added that the change had affected the entire head office, both in terms of reduced staffing and its physical location, which has moved from a large building in Brentford to one-and-a-half floors above its main Piccadilly store.

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