Young, bright, successful...if Hollywood ever made a film about the
world of corporate PR, Simon Lewis could well be its leading man.
At 37, Lewis has already filled the top communications posts at two
major City institutions and next week joins British Gas Energy as its
first director of corporate affairs. On top of that he takes over as
president of the IPR in January. As far as his personal reputation is
concerned, colleagues and acquaintances point to his charm, sense of
humour and affability. Others cite his successful 1992-1994 chairmanship
of the IPR’s City and financial group and his active interest in
promoting PR as an essential part of corporate governance.
His enthusiasm for the PR business is perhaps a reaction to the low
regard in which it was held when Lewis first considered it as a career.
That was in 1982 when, as a Fulbright Scholar from Oxford, Lewis worked
in Washington for Senator Bill Bradley. ‘I saw lobbying for the first
time and got very interested in the connection between business,
politics and the media,’ he says. ‘That to me is what PR is all about -
the nexus between those three areas.’
Returning to Oxford, he determined on a PR career but got a sniffy
response from university advisers. ‘I said I’d like to see the file on
public relations and they said there was no file,’ he remembers. ‘They
said: people don’t go into PR before they’ve tried something else first.
I think it was a reflection of the times that even in the early 1980s PR
was not considered to be a sensible career path for someone from
Oxbridge to go into.’
Undeterred, Lewis found a job at Good Relations. Quickly realising that
his interest lay in financial PR, he decamped to Shandwick Consultants.
As well as meeting his future wife there, Lewis encountered Peter
Gummer, whom he still cites as a formative influence. ‘He’s a great
motivator of people and was very good at giving young people the
opportunity to prove themselves,’ he says. ‘I also think he’s one of the
few people who has made the successful transition from PR practitioner
In 1986 he took time out to manage communications for the SDP for the
1987 general election. ‘It was a unique opportunity to work on the
inside of the political process,’ he recalls. Working for two leaders in
the SDP/Liberal Alliance also taught him the importance of consistent
After the election Lewis changed from spin doctor to City PR slicker. At
Shandwick he had helped prepare SG Warburg for the Big Bang of 1986 and
in 1987 he joined the investment bank as head of PR. Arriving during the
stock market crash gave him the chance to make a real impact, as did
NatWest’s huge profits plunge when he moved there four-and-a-half years
‘What excites me about an in-house role is that you are really at the
centre of decision making,’ he says. ‘If you are inside an organisation
that is particularly going through change you have a very interesting
insight and quite an impact on the way it is going. I’ve been very lucky
in that all the jobs I’ve had have given me great opportunities to make
Clearly a keen strategist, Lewis is less comfortable with the hands-on
business of dealing with journalists. ‘He doesn’t like to wing it,’ says
one observer. ‘He likes to be very well briefed on an issue and consider
every word.’ Others describe him as risk averse and claim he is careful
not to endanger his professional reputation.
That is perhaps unfair. Starting up communications for a company already
under the public spotlight and simultaneously embarking on what promises
to be a high profile leadership of the IPR is hardly without some risk.
Lewis himself is insistent that serious challenges are what has made his
career so rewarding.
‘I haven’t ever planned my career systematically, I’ve taken
opportunities that made sense at the time,’ he says. ‘Part of the
excitement of PR is that you have to manage your own career, and the
best way to make a difference is to pursue the opportunities where you
feel an organisation is going to do some interesting things.’
1983 Consultant, Shandwick Consultants
1986 Head of communications,SDP
1987 Head of public relations, SG Warburg Group
1992 Director of corporate affairs, NatWest Group
1996 Director of corporate affairs, British Gas Energy