PROFILE: David Highet, United Utilities; Putting on a united front

David Highet remains calm about working for a multi-utility company

David Highet remains calm about working for a multi-utility company

As the Financial Times once pointed out, the water industry must be one

of the most hated. Last summer customers’ tempers were running high in

the north as the privatised water utilities announced hefty profits and

packages for their senior management while taps ran dry across the


Yet David Highet, recently appointed director of corporate

communications for United Utilities, left Granada and the glamour of the

TV industry in 1990 to jump into this hotbed as director of corporate

communications for North West Water Group. He moved into his current

position when UU was formed from the merger of NWWG and NORWEB.

‘My wife freaked out when I took the job at North West Water. She

thought I was going through the male menopause prematurely. She couldn’t

understand why I would leave all the parties to go into an area so

hated,’ says 55 year-old Highet.

Indeed, the drought was a bitter blow for Highet who was in the middle

of an advertising campaign to tell the public how NWWG was improving -

the culmination of five years’ work spent trying to boost its image.

His new job will also have its challenges. UU has water, gas,

telecommunications and electricity interests and will serve seven

million people in the UK and 21 million overseas. But those who know

Highet think he is the right man for the job. Lynne Franks director

Graham Goodkind, who has worked on the NWWG account, describes him as

‘very thorough, a good planner and strategic thinker’ because of his

knowledge of both the water and media businesses.

Others who have worked with him comment on his style of ‘thinking like a

journalist - knowing when to act and when not to’. ‘That’s very

important when he is dealing with sensitive issues,’ said another. He

has wasted no time in setting up the structure and his team to get on

with the job ( PR Week, 9 February).

So, how did he get to where he is? It has not been an obvious route but

the common theme to his CV is his commitment to the north west.

Merseyside-born Highet joined the Liverpool Echo as a runner at the age

of 16, moving to the Birkenhead News as a trainee reporter six months

later. After three years he moved to the Wolverhampton Express and Star,

followed by a stint with a regional news agency. At 27, he became

managing editor of West Cheshire Newspapers and returned to the

Liverpool Echo as assistant editor three years later.

In 1980 he was hired by Granada TV to establish a presence for Granada

in Merseyside as general manager of the small studio that had just been

set up in Liverpool. As Granada became renowned for productions, such as

Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited, Highet was appointed head

of public affairs and was co-ordinator of the business enterprise

competition, set up by Granada in 1983 to help rebuild the region in the

aftermath of the inner city riots in Manchester and Liverpool.

After working in television, his reaction to the approach about a

position at North West Water was fairly muted. He was soon convinced of

the challenging nature of the position and after nearly 11 years at

Granada he thought ‘why not?’. Highet’s initial lack of interest has now

changed to diehard commitment. It’s difficult to get a word in edgeways

once he starts talking about the job.

His unswerving belief that ‘perception is worse than the reality of

North West Water’ is buttressed with breathless descriptions of what has

been achieved at the privatised utility. But there’s little chance that

he will become immune to public vitriol to the company. He has his ear

bent regularly when he takes calls from the public and is never far from

the full brunt of the public ire.

Still, Highet has already clicked that there are some benefits to

working for UU rather than NWWG. ‘When North West Water was mentional

socially, I always knew I was in for an interesting time,’ chuckles

Highet. ‘At least with the name change to United Utilities it may

broaden the conversation.’


1957 Trainee reporter Birkenhead News

1980 General manager Granada TV, Liverpool

1983 General manager TV news, Granada, rising to head of public affairs

1990 Director of corporate communications, North West Water Group

1995 Group director of corporate communications, United Utilities

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