PROFILE: Simon Lewis, British Gas Energy; PR’s strategic commander

Young, bright, successful...if Hollywood ever made a film about the world of corporate PR, Simon Lewis could well be its leading man.

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

to businessman.’



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

messages.



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

later.



‘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

things happen.’



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.’



HIGHLIGHTS



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



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