Asda PR chief Christine Watts prepares to take on the supermarket big
It’s been a hectic first week for Asda’s new PR chief. She has checked
stock in the supermarket warehouse, manned the checkouts, packed
shopping bags and stacked bananas.
But far from being fazed by Asda’s compulsory in-store week for new
recruits Christine Watts is on a high of induction days and mission
statements. She reels them off on cue and is rewarded with a thumbs up
from a nearby colleague.
Corporate culture at the Leeds-based supermarket is not to everyone’s
taste. A blend of American-style morale boosting initiatives where staff
are rewarded with use of the company Jaguar when sales are good and no-
nonsense northern philosophy where all ‘colleagues’ sit down and eat at
the same canteen.
But Yorkshire-born Watts is no stranger to flat reporting structures. As
a former PR director at N&P she held the title of ‘manager of
implementation’, one of four roles designed to ‘cut out unnecessary
levels of management.’
Watts is clearly a big fan. ‘If you want to deliver value and service
you have to sweep away old practices and tap into the energy of your
After 12 years at IBM, Watts decided to sample agency life at Leeds
agency Sinclair Mason in 1993 but within days of arriving spotted an ad
for the N&P job in the Guardian.
The next two-and-a-half years was spent on standby as the N&P sought a
buyer, eventually settling on Abbey National. Much of Watts’ time was
spent wooing Bradford’s MPs, business leaders and councillors -
initially hostile to a deal which meant the loss of 1,400 jobs.
‘At every stage we were as open as possible, keeping audiences at the
same level of understanding so we didn’t have an N&P employee hearing
something on the news they hadn’t heard from us, or a local councillor
discovering something on the grapevine,’ she explains.
A colleague at the time says: ‘She was thrown in at the deep end. She
had had marketing jobs but in a different environment but she coped
Watts and her six-strong team also had the job of explaining the
takeover and the voting process to 1.4 million N&P members.
Yorkshire Post deputy City editor Peter Cunliffe says: ‘During the
takeover she was very good at putting forward N&P’s case but she was
also very professional and approachable.’
The Observer’s personal finance editor Maria Scott delivers a harsher
verdict of Watts - describing her as ‘very pleasant’ and ‘tried hard to
be helpful’ but was also ‘well schooled in PR speak and ready to give me
Jonathan Clare of Citigate, PR adviser to the takover for the past 15
months, sees Watts’ role as more of a ‘leader’ and ‘highly organised
delegater’ than media relations professional.
Everyone agrees that Watts is ‘nice’, but is she too nice to fit in with
Asda’s aggressive campaigning stance? ‘Don’t be mistaken,’ says Clare.
‘There is steel in there - she has a backbone. She knows what she is
Watts will need to be tough. Under Asda’s former PR head Alan Preece,
who is staying on to handle ‘special projects’, the supermarket gained a
formidable reputation for its ability to tackle the big boys -
Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Safeway - despite having half the number of
stores and PR staff.
The five-strong communications division was instrumental in bringing
about the collapse of the Net Book Agreement and has renewed its attack
on price-fixing on over-the-counter medicines as well as dreaming up
less serious shopper incentives such as singles nights.
Watts gives nothing away when asked about the supermarket’s future PR
plans saying ‘In broad terms we will be building on stuff achieved
‘Like the personal finance sector, the supermarket business is highly
competitive so we won’t be standing still,’ she warns. ‘There will be
more bold, gutsy and fun things.’
1976 Sales executive, International Computers
1981 Corporate community involvement manager, IBM
1993 Corporate communications manager, National and Provincial Building
1996 PR general manager, Asda