Simon Walker is an addict, if he can’t have his daily fix of
newspapers, he will go to untold lengths to receive news some other way.
For instance, every year when he and his family retreat to their remote
New Zealand hideaway, which is without a phone and electricity, Walker -
much to the amusement of his children - sets up a 30ft aerial in the
back garden so that he can listen to the World Service. He even used to
sleep with the radio on all night until his wife put a stop to it.
Walker’s new job as British Airways communications director will give
him tremendous scope for indulging both his news addiction and his
passion for politics. It is easy to see what attracted him. ’BA is
probably the most written about and examined company in the UK and being
director of its communications is the most exciting job in public
relations in this country,’ he says. ’For a PR professional BA has all
the diversity of issues that any consultancy could offer, as well as the
advantages of working for a single company.’
Walker, a very softly spoken 44-year-old, has worked with BA for three
of his four years at Brunswick, where he was a partner. The in-house job
became available following the hasty departure of his predecessor, Kevin
Murray, the day before he arrived. It is understood that Murray was
asked to leave because he didn’t have the heavyweight City and media
contacts BA wanted.
Following last summer’s cabin crew strike, Murray had instigated an
in-house restructure to improve internal communications and staff morale
and Walker is at pains to point out that he has no intention of making a
change for change’s sake. ’I don’t want my new staff to think that there
is going to be huge change because there isn’t. I am very happy with the
people in the department,’ he says.
Murray’s plans to recruit a chief media officer, a broadcast specialist
and a head of employee communications are well advanced and will
continue under the guidance of Walker, who is also looking for five or
six junior staff to fill existing vacancies in the department. Walker is
keen to expand BA’s external communications.
’I want us to be very open and responsive to the media,’ he says, ’but I
don’t want to sound at all critical of the work that has been done.
I think Kevin did a brilliant job and developed the best employee
communications of any company I know.’
Walker and Murray are obviously very different animals and while Walker
will be responsible for internal communications, his prime focus is
going to be improving relations with journalists and getting more
positive stories across to the media.
Walker has a great fondness for journalists - not only did he marry one,
he was one (as a TV reporter for five years in New Zealand), and
apparently he still likes their company. He was offered the job of
reporter while he was on a debating tour of Australia and New Zealand in
1975, having been president of the Oxford Union, the university’s
Originally, Walker came from South Africa, where he was brought up in a
strongly anti-apartheid family, he wrote a controversial article for the
Cape Town University newspaper which was banned ’and caused a terrible
furore which made it sensible to leave’. So he consequently took up his
place at Oxford.
Walker’s political career has spanned a wide ideological spectrum. He
reconciles his position as a director of the New Zealand Labour Party
with a stint as an adviser to John Major at 10 Downing street by
describing himself as ’a broadly free market person’.
Somehow Walker’s unassuming manner and appearance don’t square with his
background. But then again, someone who is a past master at debating,
enjoys a good fight and is no stranger to controversy, would seem
perfect for BA.
1975: Reporter, TVNZ,New Zealand
1981: Communications director, New Zealand Labour Party
1984: Founded Communicor (PR and lobbying), New Zealand
1990: Director European public affairs, Hill and Knowlton
1994: Partner, Brunswick
1998: Communications director, British Airways