LONDON, February 16—Since founding his own public relations firm, Countrywide Communications, in 1973, former journalist Peter Hehir has established himself as one of the most influential leaders of the British public relations scene, a constant champion of research and planning, professionalism and ethics, and research and evaluation.
Now, at the not particularly ancient age of 56, Hehir is stepping down from his role at chairman of Porter Novelli International. Although he says he will continue to work as a consultant to PNI parent Omnicom—which acquired Countrywide in 1993—for the next three years and that he may work on accounts on a pro bono basis or in an advisory role, Hehir will no longer play any executive role at PNI.
The announcement marks the second major shift for Porter Novelli’s European operations in the past six months. Late last year, German agency Kohtes & Klewes announced that it would operate independently from the rest of the PNI network, and would open its own branded offices in a handful of European markets.
Hehir will be replaced as CEO of Porter Novelli Europe by Neil Backwith, for the past 18 months CEO of the U.K. operations. A 20-year veteran of Countrywide, Beckwith has a marketing background and was previously head of the firm’s advertising agency as well as director of strategic planning. He will serve on the Porter Novelli International board, which is headed by chief executive Bob Druckenmiller and also includes president of Porter Novelli U.S. David Copithorne.
According to Druckenmiller, “Peter is retiring at a time when Countrywide is doing extremely well, and he has a lot of confidence in Neil Backwith as someone who can build on the success he has had in the U.K. market and in Europe.”
When Hehir founded Countrywide in rural Banbury it had just one full-time employee. It grew to become one of the top five PR firms in the U.K., and the only firm to be named PR Week’s Consultancy of the Year three times.
Hehir, meanwhile, became the youngest chairman of the Public Relations Consultants Association in the mid 80s, and later became the only Brit to chair ICO, the international gathering for PR agency association. He was also a major influence on the formation of the U.S. Council for Public Relations Firms, founded two years ago.