PROFILE: Patrick Kerr, Unilever UK - Redundancy opens opportunity for Kerr. Sonera Zed's loss is Unilever's gain as Patrick Kerr returns to head UK comms

Less than six months ago Patrick Kerr was boarding a plane out of England, with no job or career plans to come back to. An unexpected redundancy from Finnish telecoms firm Sonera Zed left him - albeit with a golden handshake - out of a job and free to travel.

But just two weeks later and on the other side of the world, Kerr was celebrating news of his appointment to one of the top PR jobs in corporate Britain - head of comms for Unilever UK.

He looks back on his redundancy with a touch of humour, which according to friends and past colleagues, is characteristic of the man. Kerr's background in law, public affairs and corporate PR is balanced by a quick wit and ever-present sense of humour. Nike head of corporate comms Yvonne Iwaniuk, who worked with Kerr at Burson-Marsteller, describes him as 'a complete joker', yet also 'a great strategist'.

After six months at Sonera, the telecoms crash hit and Kerr's job evolved into a crisis comms role amid a wave of job cuts that eventually included his own. 'It was the ultimate PR man's task to then communicate your own redundancy,' says Kerr, without any apparent hint of bitterness.

He worked as Sonera's director of corporate comms through the most volatile telecoms period, lured by the hype and an attractive pay package, and then made a victim of the sector's over-ambition. 'We simply just weren't making enough money,' he says. 'There were high rewards and high risks.'

Sonera was a break from the norm for Kerr, who previously worked in public affairs as director of comms for business lobbying group London First.

Heading its six-strong PR team, Kerr was in his element as a PA practitioner - he had access to the City's top movers and shakers plus the chance to make a real impact at a time when the Government was in the process of creating the Greater London Authority.

'I believe we achieved making London First a respected political player,' says Kerr, who had a hand in lobbying for a mayor for London. Part of the job satisfaction came from helping improve the environment you live in, he says: 'If you live in and around London, you want the transport system to be good, people to be educated and air clean.'

Kerr is happiest in campaigning mode, says long-term friend and Fishburn Hedges head of PA Graham McMillan: 'He loves media relations, the thrill of being involved in a big story and planning campaigns.'

Unilever, however, is a huge organisation with a labyrinth of structures and reporting lines, which could put restrictions on Kerr's passion for campaigning. 'He'll have to go through a few lines before launching campaigns, which will be different for him,' says McMillan, who studied law with Kerr at Trinity College, Oxford, and now works with him as part of Unilever's retained agency team.

As well as helping him to build his lobbying credentials, London First also provided Kerr with a bulging contact book, which came in handy during the first few bleak weeks after his redundancy. Kerr says he became his own 'PR machine', networking with the great and the good for his next career move.

Unilever was just 'one of the irons in the fire' when Kerr embarked on his two-month travelling break, which he admits was 'a bit of a gamble' at the time.

Oddly enough, Kerr has almost come full-circle with his current position.

He started life as a graduate trainee at B-M, initially handling health marketing for brands such as Flora and Mentadent - both of which he returns to now with Unilever's vast brand portfolio.

While consumer PR is not Kerr's forte, his role will rarely touch on that area, focusing instead on government and media relations, sponsorship, internal and online comms. His post was created to help free up public affairs and comms director Cliff Grantham to handle the group's wider policy issues.

Kerr is currently doing a tour of the offices, in the UK and across Europe, before drawing up a detailed PR strategy: 'We need to get a communications plan together. We haven't actually had one before and that's because we have tended to be somewhat reactive and need to be more proactive.'

Unilever is a success story right now, with shares soaring on recent news that it expects to see a percentage profit rise in the mid-teens this year, beating all forecasts.

The challenge for Kerr will be to see his PR plans come to fruition in a highly complex organisation, which employs nearly 15,000 people and is spread over 30 sites across the UK.

As he stresses himself, now is a time to 'find the questions before arriving at the answers'. Getting to grips with a firm like Unilever could prove a task enough in itself.

1993: Account director, Burson-Marsteller
1997: Director of comms, London First
2000: Director of corporate communications, Sonera Zed
2002: Head of UK comms, Unilever UK

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in