Profile: Tim Blythe, WH Smith Group - Doing it by the books/Tim Blythe is working to keep WH Smith at the top of the best-seller lists

Being a dab hand with a make -up brush seems a strange skill for the director of group corporate affairs at WH Smith to possess. Yet applying cosmetics was one of the disciplines Tim Blythe was trained in during his ten years in Whitehall. ’If you’ve been stuck out on the road all day and suddenly your minister has to appear on television, the last thing you want is for him to look awful,’ he explains.

Being a dab hand with a make -up brush seems a strange skill for the

director of group corporate affairs at WH Smith to possess. Yet applying

cosmetics was one of the disciplines Tim Blythe was trained in during his

ten years in Whitehall. ’If you’ve been stuck out on the road all day and

suddenly your minister has to appear on television, the last thing you

want is for him to look awful,’ he explains.



Blythe’s introduction to PR was far from glamorous. In 1981 the young

parliamentary accounts analyst was given a dismal sounding promotion to

the press office.’ I was told that they were nearly all failed journalists

in there but at least I’d get to work in a minister’s office,’ he

recalls.



’A year later when it was time to move on, I didn’t want to. I found

something I was in love with.’



Although his skills with a powder puff are unlikely to be called upon,

Blythe’s Westminster training will no doubt prove useful as WH Smith

embarks on a major literacy drive with the Government. Last week it

appointed Lowe Bell Political to the account, thought to be worth pounds

150,000 a year in fees (PR Week, 4 July).



Blythe is reluctant to talk in detail about the campaign, which is

principally aimed at helping children, ahead of its official launch in

autumn. However, he is an enthusiastic advocate for its motives. ’This

company has a passionate belief in literacy,’ he asserts. ’Within the

group you have the country’s largest and second largest bookseller (WH

Smith and Waterstones), we have a role to play in education. It is good

corporate citizenship.’



Cynics might think that it was a way of selling more childrens books, but

Blythe is adamant that the company is not doing it for commercial reasons.

’It is not a marketing stunt. It is about providing an environment to help

the cause of literacy; it says something about the firm,’ he says.



The 41-year-old, who hailed from Mexborough, South Yorkshire and now lives

in London’s Docklands, joined six months ago from Brunswick, where he led

WH Smith’s corporate communications account. One of the principal

attractions, he says, was the opportunity to work with chief executive

Bill Cockburn, who resigned two weeks ago to go to BT. There was also the

fact that ’we sell things that make people’s lives more enjoyable, more

fun’.



Blythe arrived during a period of unprecedented change for the

204-year-old retailer. It had not long announced its first ever losses of

pounds 195 million, made 1,000 people redundant and swapped its grand old

head office in Sloane Square for a modest floor in a City building. Head

office staff was cut from 300 to 22 and the PR department shrank from 30

to six.



Blythe’s task to establish corporate reputation and enhance its status

initially meant ’getting the team right, working out what we stand for and

what we are going to do about it’. The corporate communications director’s

chair had been empty for 18 months and many of the practices that one

would take as read were not in place, he says. ’Things like good contact

programmes with analysts, journalists and the government,’ he cites.

Blythe has built a team of which he is glowingly proud and which

researched attitudes at all levels of the company.



’Finding out what people thought about the company was vital to developing

a group communications plan,’ says Blythe. Improving internal

communications was an immediate priority followed by increasing

communication between different countries - he is very keen on increasing

awareness of the group’s international operations both internally and

externally. The community relations and staff awards programmes have been

fine tuned and the company magazine relaunched. The new look was so

successful that some of the stores mistook it for saleable stock, he

notes.



After six months of researching, relaunching and fine tuning, WH Smith is

ready to do something positive and Blythe is relishing the prospect of

spreading the words.



HIGHLIGHTS

1981

Whitehall press officer

1988

NatWest deputy media relations director

1993

Dairy Crest director of corporate communications

1994

Associate partner, Brunswick

1997

Director of group corporate affairs, WH Smith Group



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