Profile: Active service in the country - Jill Rawlins, director of communications, The Countryside Agency

Jill Rawlins is at a loss to name her favourite tract of England's green and pleasant land. But the Somerset resident hesitates before admitting in a matter-of-fact way that she is a 'towny relocated' who would 'loathe' to work in a job where she did not have to commute to London 'if not every week, two or three times a week'.

Rawlins, who splits her time between The Countryside Agency's London and Cheltenham offices, snorts at the idea that anyone involved with the media has time for a hobby, though she admits this may seem a bit 'limited'. Issues management, she says, is what turns her on.

Funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Countryside Agency acts as watchdog and champion for the countryside by pushing for better services, promoting active and inclusive communities and lobbying for improvements to the rural economy.

Rawlins, whose contract runs provisionally until December 2006, should be kept busy. From 1 April next year, part of the organisation's responsibilities will move to regional development agencies and government, leaving a much leaner body to act as rural watchdog. Expected changes in the law over the next two years will also see landscape, access and recreation matters pass to other groups.

The process will have a profound impact on Rawlins's 52-strong team, and her own role could be abolished as comms functions are hived off to other entities.

Rawlins joined the agency in July, six months after her position as Country Land and Business Association marcoms director was scrapped. She hopes that her openness will compensate for her lack of long-term relationships with Countryside Agency staff. 'It matters that they are managed as people and not as employees. I don't know if I have a magic wand there,' she says.

Rawlins's no-nonsense, brass-tacks demeanour is just the right side of a jolly-hockey-sticks headmistress. When she talks about a career that has encompassed post-privatisation BT, a struggling Somerfield and pub operator Spirit Group - which suffered an aborted stock market listing during her reign - Rawlins is enthusiastic about getting her hands dirty and almost contemptuous of strategic planning. 'These things have to be handled carefully and quickly,' she says. 'This is not the time to sit around having conversations to sort out "the message".'

Rawlins's penchant for the proactive has earned her criticism from rivals. In 1996, she publicised a survey of Somerfield shoppers' habits that the then Asda PR general manager Alan Preece attacked for having no other value than 'to get the Somerfield name in print' (PRWeek, 17 May 1996).

She dismisses the 'po-faced' attitudes to such tactics, saying they were necessary when she inherited Somerfield's 'defunct' press office. 'Frankly, we needed coverage and had to fight bloody hard because we were not Sainsbury's, Tesco or Asda. We had to run harder to become visible, and run hard we did,' she says.

Stansted Airport director of comms Mark Pendlington, who hired Rawlins when he was Country Land and Business Association chief executive, remembers Rawlins would use her dry sense of humour to prick the formal atmosphere of the group's meetings.

'She has been in quite a few tight corners and is very good at meetings, having the confidence to say what she thinks and transfer that confidence to people with less experience,' he says.

The need to be proactive is still with Rawlins, who says she gets 'very cross with people who go to exhibition stands and sit on a chair and do nothing'. But she concedes her new target audience of parish councillors, pressure groups and rural stakeholders requires a sober approach: 'The agency is a little bit respectable. I wouldn't want to shock them too much too soon.'

The coming upheaval in the way England polices the countryside will leave time enough for Rawlins's more direct approach.


1985: PR manager, BT

1994: Head of corporate affairs, Somerfield and Kwik Save

2001: Head of corporate relations, Spirit Group

2003: Director of marketing and communications, Country Land and

Business Association

2004: Director of communications, The Countryside Agency

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