PROFILE: Christine Watts, Asda; Ready to roll in the aisles

Asda PR chief Christine Watts prepares to take on the supermarket big boys

Asda PR chief Christine Watts prepares to take on the supermarket big

boys



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

people.’



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

superbly.’



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

the flannel’.



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

doing.’



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

already.

‘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.’



HIGHLIGHTS



1976 Sales executive, International Computers

1981 Corporate community involvement manager, IBM

1993 Corporate communications manager, National and Provincial Building

Society

1996 PR general manager, Asda



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