It is probably not the kind of comment one expects from a man who has spent the best part of 30 years defending one of the world’s most scrutinised companies. But when BP head of media Roddy Kennedy says: ‘I like people and I like to be liked,’ as a long lunch draws to a close, it rings disarmingly true.
For someone so locked into the corporate world, the 64-year-old is a picture of openness and warmth. Unsurprisingly, given the media battles Kennedy has had to fight, there is considerable savvy behind his friendly demeanour.
It is often difficult, for example, to ascertain just who is interviewing whom. Kennedy appears rather more interested in gossiping about other people than talking about himself. Then again, as he points out, this is the first interview he has given about himself – and was only granted because he is entering his final year at BP before handing over the reins.
‘I do not believe PR people should be out there promoting themselves,’ he says. He does not belong to any industry organisations and shuns the many opportunities to speak at PR events. ‘I believe in getting on with the job I am paid to do.’
This painfully low profile may explain why Kennedy is one of the most respected comms names in the media world.
‘He is very approachable, shrewd and has an unmistakable Irish charm,’ says Roland Gribben, former business editor of The Daily Telegraph. ‘He is the best in the business and has been worth a few pence on the BP share price down the years.’
‘Roddy is a great professional and a decent human being. He is tremendously loyal,’ says The Guardian’s energy editor Terry Macalister, who has known him for 20 years. ‘He is loyal to his family, friends and brutally loyal to BP. The latter is not altogether easy as BP is a company with inherent contradictions.’
This unswerving allegiance to the party line is hard to miss. Some journalists have clearly been rubbed up the wrong way by Kennedy defending the barely defensible.
He retains an affection for the media, even though it has been more than 30 years since he worked as a journalist. ‘It was a big decision to leave,’ he says. ‘Like most journalists I had a sense of my own importance, but also the importance of the work.’
He does not see himself as a PR professional at heart, having been at BP for so long. ‘I regard myself as an oil man more than anything else – a label I wear proudly. The oil industry is a fascinating mix of big money, big politics and big people.’
None bigger, presumably, than former BP CEO and close friend Lord Browne, whose fall from grace in 2007 must have ranked as one of Kennedy’s most difficult comms challenges. It is the only moment in the interview Kennedy withdraws, still visibly saddened by the events. ‘It is still quite delicate and raw,’ he admits.
Kennedy has been at the cutting edge of the news agenda from the moment he walked into his current role back in 1992. He found himself handling the departure of then CEO and chairman Sir Robert Horton with a couple of hours’ notice. ‘I was asked to head up the press office permanently that night,’ he remembers.
That intensity has never dissipated, thanks to BP’s ability to act as a lightning-rod for criticism – over environmental policies, safety records, ‘obscene’ profits and corporate battles, to name but a few.
‘When I started, business coverage was under the control of knowledgeable specialists,’ he argues. ‘But now journalists are more interested in the sharp headline, rather than in the truth of the story.’
Despite his close working relationships at board level and vast industry experience, he remains keen to stress the difference between communicator and decision-maker. ‘As a communicator, never be afraid to say, I’m sorry, I cannot make a decision on that, but I can tell you what the press reaction will be.’
Kennedy is held in high esteem by BP.
He was persuaded to stay by Browne and then Browne’s successor, Tony Hayward, when he was set to retire four years ago.
But retirement now beckons, as does his house in Hertfordshire and the lure of antique auctions. He says he will remain ‘in the business’ in some reduced format if ‘something interesting comes up’.
Last week it was revealed that his successor is Andrew Gowers, ex-FT editor and Lehman comms head. When asked what words of advice he will leave, his response is understated: ‘Very often doing nothing is the best course of action – always take plenty of time to think before you act.’
From a man with Kennedy’s experience, those words are worth heeding.
Roddy Kennedy’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
When I was a sub editor on the Sunday Express doing Saturday shifts, I walked up to then editor Sir John Junor and asked for a job. He was sufficiently curious to give me an interview, which led to a full-time position. Also working with Lord Browne and establishing a close working relationship with him.
Have you had a notable mentor?
I have had a lot of mentors with the company – notably BP chairman Peter Sutherland, Lord Browne, and before them BP chairman Lord Simon.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Get to know the business as closely as you can and in the same level of detail as the people who run it. If you can do that, you will not have to refer constantly to your managers for guidance in formulating press responses, as you will already know what to say.
What do you prize in new recruits?
Intellect is important, but likeability is a priority. I have had very few rotten apples in my team but it only takes one person to ruin an atmosphere.
1992 Head of media relations, BP
1989 Head of government and public affairs, BP Exploration
1980 Press officer, BP
1977 Editor of Shipping News Magazine, BP
1970 Series editor (book serialisations), Express Newspapers
1965 Reporter and feature writer, Leicester Mercury