Profile: The negotiator - Sue Beeson, PR manager, AA Roadside

In its centenary year, Britain's biggest motoring body the AA has enlisted something of a pocket dynamo to head the communications for its core breakdown recovery business.

Standing a tad over five foot one, Sue Beeson is spirited and determined - 'born and bred in the East End, a true cockney and proud of it' - and a 26-year British Gas veteran, having joined the utility firm as a school-leaver.

Marching through the corridors of the AA's modern headquarters in Farnborough, 44-year-old Beeson is an engaging, feisty character who packs plenty of energy into her diminutive frame. Apparently, it was her height that destroyed her ambitions of becoming an airhostess and drove her into a career in sales.

Her introduction to PR came in 1994 when she was plucked from sales as British Gas restructured in the face of deregulation. 'Every structure at British Gas was wiped aside,' says Beeson, clearly relishing the opportunity to again build a comms function from scratch, for AA Roadside.

Her arrival in February came after the AA's private equity owners decentralised PR into separate business units and slashed its in-house team from 18 staff to just six (PRWeek, 25 March).

The British Gas Beeson joined as an 18-year-old fresh out of secondary school in 1978 was a very different institution to the one she left at the start of this year. Privatisation in 1986 and deregulation in 1994 tore away a culture in which the male-dominated workforce wore suits and were accustomed to being addressed as 'sir', something she struggled with.

'It just wasn't natural to call someone "sir", and I came from a generation that started to address that issue,' says Beeson.'Most of the staff had engineering backgrounds and were about 35, and here I was at 20 with two years of showroom sales experience. They didn't talk to me and it took a few years to win some of them around,' she recalls.

'I was dealing with professional people who knew a hell of a lot more than me. But I could sell and I was very prepared to stand up for what I thought. I had bags of enthusiasm, and that can make up for a lot of shortcomings.'

Former British Gas national media relations manager Richard Dymond worked alongside Beeson for seven years and now runs Lattice PR. He believes Beeson is the right person for the AA, whose challenges mirror those overcome by British Gas.

'Sue will hate me for saying this but she's like a terrier. She's very tenacious. Once she gets hold of something she doesn't let go until she solves it. But I've never seen her need to lose her temper. Her negotiation and people management skills are excellent,' he says.

PR agencies currently pitching for her business should be warned - she intends to put these negotiation skills to good use. Measurement and payment by results are central to Beeson's approach.

She insists there are very few things that cannot be measured. Even intangibles, such as reputation, can be judged by measuring their effect. 'PR has always been accepted as a necessary cost rather than a revenue raiser. These days, though, every cost has to contribute something to the company.

Part of my job is to prove the value that PR brings,' says Beeson.

She admits to being worried by how well she manages budgets, but is equally committed to other sides of her job including media relations.

She says she didn't struggle to adapt to a media-facing role after her background in sales and management: 'I approach journalists the way I would approach anybody. They are just people doing their jobs and if I can make their lives easier then we'll get along well.'

But in an early radio interview at British Gas she committed the cardinal sin of using jargon - 'nil-credit' instead of the more understandable 'the customer owes us nothing'. To her embarrassment it was used as a soundbite all day.

It was a mistake she has not repeated, she claims: 'With me, what you see is what you get. I don't have any hidden agendas - I have too much work to do for that. I could pontificate with the best of them but I just want to get my message across.'


1990 Housing development manager, British Gas

1993 Service operations manager, British Gas

1994 Communications manager, British Gas

2000 National PR manager, British Gas

2002 Head of brand and marketing PR, British Gas

2005 PR manager, AA Roadside

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