Ian Wright - The Wright stuff

Diageo's head of corporate relations is highly respected in the PR industry but he has never lost his sense of fun, reports Gemma O'Reilly.

Ian Wright
Ian Wright

Diageo's top communicator, Ian Wright, has 'the best job in the world'. He lounges with a company drink in his hand, in a company bar that could easily pass for a top London nightclub. He may be being hyperbolic, but it is clear there is a lot to like about his job.

The ebullient Wright has been handling brand PR, corporate media relations, public lobbying and CSR for one of the world's biggest drinks companies for almost a decade. Before that he worked at Boots, Golley Slater Brooker, and for Paddy Ashdown when the colourful MP headed the Liberal Democrats. But for now, he wants to talk about Diageo.

In the past eight years, issues surrounding binge drinking and the role of alcohol in society have soared up the political agenda. With the drinks industry in talks with the Government about measures to help change Britain's drinking culture, Wright's employer is in the thick of it.

'This is probably the most vigorous period of debate we've ever seen,' admits Wright. He gets understandably defensive about the industry being made a scapegoat in the binge drinking debate, although he is adamant the company needs to do its part in educating the public about limits.

'I truly believe we should tell people the facts about alcohol. They need to understand how much they can drink and stay in control,' he says. 'But the other side of the equation is that it is the individual's responsibility too. We're all grown-ups.'

Though serious and thoughtful when it comes to important issues, Wright sprinkles the interview with gags, quips and stories. Colleagues say he is 'very sociable', which befits someone in his role. But it is clear he takes his job seriously and is credited for being a gifted communicator.

'He epitomises what it takes to be a global reputation leader,' says Reputation Inc CEO John Mahony, who worked with Wright when they were both at Boots. 'He understands the need for reputation to be aligned to business ambition, and has no fear of taking on senior executives.'

'On another note,' he adds, paying homage to Wright's love of balancing the serious with the light-hearted, 'while he may think he's something of a disco diva, he wouldn't even make it through the first round of Strictly Come Dancing.'

The dichotomy of serious versus silly is echoed in Wright's personal life. This has so far been a year of contrasting highs and lows. In September he was honoured for his contribution to the PR industry with the CIPR Stephen Tallents Medal.

'The best of breed medal?' he teases. 'I was very chuffed. Although I have the slightest feeling they might have given it to me this year because they thought I might not be here next year to receive it.'

This last comment is a reference to his battle with lymphatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with earlier this year. He is surprisingly upbeat about his experience.

'I was sailing along prior to the diagnosis,' says Wright. 'Nothing bad has ever happened to me and you can't expect to live your whole life like that, so in some ways I can't complain.'

Work appears to have helped him pull through and he is proud of not taking a single day off during his treatment, even when undergoing chemotherapy. 'The BlackBerry is a work of genius,' he grins.

He also praises colleagues, who he says were extremely supportive throughout. It is clear the respect he has for his team is fully reciprocated, exemplified by a huge surprise fiftieth birthday party they threw for him two days before this interview.

Close friend and former Liberal Democrat party leader Paddy Ashdown and current leader Nick Clegg attended the bash.

Ashdown's friendship harks back to Wright's time spent in the 1990s as a volunteer speechwriter alongside KPMG partner of public affairs Neil Sherlock. 'We gained a reputation with the lobby as providing the jokes for Paddy,' says Sherlock. In his spare time Wright jokes he enjoys 'girls and drugs', but in reality he is a committed family man who spends four days a week at his farmhouse in Rutland, Leicestershire, and the rest in London.

Wright is one of a handful of PROs who have warranted more than one profile on these pages. But after a brief chat with him it becomes clear why he deserves it.

At his birthday party, Ashdown recounted his wife Jane's suspicions that Wright was 'one of those posh Social Democratic Party types'. She was finally won over when she observed him briefing journalists on the Ashdown bus in 1997. He opened with the gambit: 'Now listen here you fuckers.' Engaging and direct; the essence of a truly effective communicator.

 

CV

2004 Corporate relations director, Diageo

2000 Communications director, Diageo

1997 Communications director, Boots the Chemist

1994 Head of PR, Boots Healthcare International

1989 MD, Golley Slater Brooker PR

1987 Group account director, Chilmark

1986 Account director, Grayling/Gwynne Hart

1985 Account manager, Gwynne Hart

1981 Political officer, Social Democratic Party

 

IAN WRIGHT'S TURNING POINTS

 

- What was your biggest career break?

Moving to Diageo just at the point when it went through a period of enormous change. I've now been at the company for eight and a half years. Our products are present whenever anyone is celebrating life, which is fantastic.

- What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder in PR?

Take time on the way up to ensure that your career has all its rungs in place: that way you won't be coming down too quickly.

- Who was your most notable mentor or influence?

My school teacher RW (Bob) Stanley. He was unremitting in his demand for excellence and was kindness personified. At work the owner of my first PR employer, Norman Hart. He was a legendary figure in the Labour party of the 1950s, 60s and 70s and he was one of the founders of modern PR.

- What do you look for in new recruits?

They need to be able to think clearly and write clearly. They also need common sense.

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