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