PROFILE: Pharma comedian

The ABPI head of media relations is set to drag the pharma industry into the limelight. Gemma O'Reilly reports.

Crispin Slee
Crispin Slee

Crispin Slee should be do-ing stand-up comedy. From funny walks to impersonations, he is a lively interviewee; full of energy and verve.

Slee is two weeks into his new job as head of media at the pharmaceutical industry's trade body, and he will need to keep his good humour during the myriad challenges ahead. Promoting the notoriously secretive drugs industry in his role as the public face of the Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) is unlikely always to be a barrel of laughs.

While he admits his knowledge of the healthcare arena is limited, Slee is undoubtedly qualified for the job.

Before he joined the ABPI, he headed up the corporate comms team at Grayling Global. There, he worked on NHS accounts for the agency, but Slee believes his general lack of healthcare expertise will actually work in his favour. 'I am not joining with the baggage of having worked in the industry,' he explains. 'I can take a fresh look at how it talks about itself.'

Understandably, he appears slightly daunted to be stepping into the 'very big boots' of predecessor Richard Ley, who held the post for 13 years before his retirement this month: 'Part of my role is to build on the fantastic job that Richard has done. In truth he has made my job harder by doing his job so brilliantly.'

But he adds: 'I am looking forward to building on that.'

The industry has been criticised in the past for not having a positive voice in the media. However, this is one of Slee's main opportunities. ABPI corporate affairs dir- ector David Lewis said at the time of Slee's appointment that the organisation had in the past focused on reactive news with the broadcast media and broadsheets, but now wanted to become more proactive.

Crispin SleeThis move will be well received by the healthcare comms sector, which has long pushed for more support from its trade body in promoting the industry.

Slee believes his experience working within the food industry will be useful in helping the pharma industry tackle its reputation problem.

While at Grayling he worked on a range of accounts including Dairy Crest and Masterfoods, advising the latter during its 'vegetarian issue' last year, where it hit the headlines for using the animal enzyme rennet in Mars Bars.

'Like the food industry, the pharma industry has been quite conservative and quiet about what it does,' says Slee. 'That is not to say it does not do some good things, but it should be talking about itself more. '

A former local newspaper journalist, Slee admits he is still 'a bit of a reporter at heart'. Former colleague and current Heinz director of corporate and government affairs Nigel Dickie says Slee still has 'a nose for news'. Dickie worked with Slee for four years at the now closed Huntsworth-owned Counsel Communications.

'I know one of his first assignments was reporting on a rugby game between inmates and prison wardens while wearing a full rugby kit. We used the shot in presentations to clients to show his dedication to his job.'

Grayling executive chairman Vivien Hepworth echoes Dickie, commending both Slee's extensive knowledge of the media industry and his sense of fun. 'He is a great guy to work with. Media knowledge aside, it will be his chicken dance that we will miss the most.'

While the daily commute to Northamptonshire does not leave much spare time, the local rugby club is where Slee can be found most weekends. And when not turning out for the third XV, he can be found coaching his son's under-nine team.

His notorious sense of humour extends to family life too. 'When it came to naming my son, I thought giving him a daft moniker was the least I could do after having a silly name all my life. So we named him Diggory Aloisius.'

As the interview draws to a close, Slee's instinct for 'colourful' stories kicks in, and he discusses his very short-lived political career, when as a student he stood for Parliament as candidate for the "This is the best party I've ever been to party".

'I polled something extraordinary like 452 votes,' he recalls. 'I did so well the Lib Dem candidate refused to shake my hand because she claimed my votes had compromised her third place.'

He then launches into a tale involving his bare legs and the opening shot of a film about the infamous fictional cad Flashman, but that is best kept away from the pages of a respectable trade magazine.

With his eye for a story and ability to engage people, Slee stands an excellent chance of taking the pharma industry out of its shell and into the limelight.

2008: Head of media relations, ABPI
2005: Director, Grayling
2003: Associate director, Counsel Public Relations
2002: Account director, Woodside Communications
1994: Managing director and editor, Northants Press Agency

What was your biggest career break? As a journalist, being in the right place at the right time (and with a bank manager who was willing to lend a young reporter the money) to buy Northants Press Agency, which led to eight happy, intense years.

What advice would you give someone climbing the PR ladder?

Learn from everyone around you. Seek out and embrace challenges. Be honest. Be confident. Be nice - I have never forgotten the advice provided to me by Arthur Edwards, The Sun's legendary photographer: 'You get a lot further with sugar than you do with vinegar.'

Who was your most notable mentor? I have been very lucky to work with lots of talented and generous people. If I had to pick one, it would be Nigel Dickie, now director of corporate and government affairs at Heinz in the UK, who was an exacting and brilliant boss at Counsel.

What do you prize most in new recruits? Enthusiasm, openness, a willingness to learn and a sense of fun.

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