‘I’d always been interested in travel and there was something romantic
about ships,’ says Bill Spears, recalling his decision to go to sea aged
16. Now almost 20 years later, maritime matters will once again figure
large in his new job as Cunard Line’s first public relations director.
The position may test his romance with the ocean wave to the full, for
while Cunard’s image hasn’t exactly been scuttled, it has certainly been
holed. The controversy surrounding the ‘nightmare’ voyage of its
flagship the QE2 last Christmas has been a persistent irritant to Cunard
and its owner Trafalgar House throughout the past year.
The luxury cruise liner, you will recall, set sail with hundreds of
passengers on board before a major refit had been completed. Instead of
the pleasurable ‘voyage of a lifetime’ the passengers had been promised,
their trips were ruined by faulty plumbing, foul smells and debris from
building work littering the ship.
Many passengers complained vociferously to the media, which was only too
delighted to report on the fiasco, and Cunard eventually had to settle a
multi-million pound compensation claim brought by some of those on the
voyage who suffered injury or illness because of the on-board
conditions. Cunard’s response to its passengers’ initial complaints was
widely seen as high-handed and unsympathetic, only serving to stoke up
more discontent. As the negative coverage continued, Spears approached
Cunard’s owner, suggesting they should create the position of PR
director and that he was the man for the job.
‘All the furore about the refit was the trigger that prompted me to
write to Trafalgar House and take the initiative,’ says Spears.
Most of Cunard’s passengers come from the US. As a consequence its head
office is located on Manhattan’s glamorous Fifth Avenue. Spears will
relocate there in the next few months, where he will report direct to
chairman and CEO Peter Ward. One of his objectives is to see ‘PR
integrated into business decisions’. His main task will be to co-
ordinate PR on an international level.
There will also be a thorough communications review. ‘There are no
sacred cows,’ says Spears. ‘And if things aren’t delivering what they
should be, they won’t be pursued.’ Words that will chill the hearts of
under-performers as surely as an iceberg ahead of a cruise liner.
Although Spears is exhilarated at the prospect of his move to New York,
the impending change in his lifestyle will be a wrench - his parting
from these shores has occasioned the sale of his beloved 1000cc Honda
superbike. Spears is also a tennis fanatic who, for each of the last six
years, has taken two weeks of his annual leave to coincide with
Wimbledon fortnight. One hopes he will enjoy the US Open as much.
After a stint in IR at what is now drinks group Allied Domecq, Spears’
career took off as head of press relations at Guinness. The company was
still reeling from the financial scandal that engulfed it in the mid-
1980s, and Spears must take some of the credit for restoring City faith
in the company’s management. ‘In a couple of years we managed to get
from being one of the lowest rated companies to the top in terms of the
MORI rating of City opinion.’
From corporate headquarters he moved to Guinness Brewing Worldwide -
which brews in 50 countries and sells its products in 150 - where he set
up and ran its public affairs department. Rona Cameron, one-time
Guinness Brewing UK press relations manager, who has worked on ‘special
projects’ for Spears since setting up as a freelance PR consultant says:
‘He has an ability to look at every angle and take a new approach. And
he can defuse a tense situation with awful, corny jokes.’
One suspects, however, that he won’t be cracking the one that begins:
have you heard about the ship that left port before its refit was
‘Nothing ever prepares you for the first time you take control of a
ship,’ says Spears, recalling the thrill of navigating through the
Straits of Gibraltar. Does the same apply to the person taking control
of Cunard’s reputation?
1977 Navigating officer, P&O
1981 Shipbroker, FT Everard
1987 Surety underwriter, Sun Alliance
1987 Corporate affairs manager, Allied Domecq
1989 Head of press relations, Guinness plc
1991 Director of public affairs, Guinness Brewing Worldwide
1995 PR director, Cunard Line