In 2008, Diageo was named the U.K.’s Most Admired Company by Management Today magazine—an impressive accomplishment for any company, but particularly for one that makes its money in the issues-rich alcoholic beverage sector. That’s not an achievement for which Ian Wright would take the lion’s share of the credit—he points, with justification, to the leadership of chief executive Paul Walsh—but it is clear that the corporate affairs function Wright has led for the past decade has made a significant contribution to the company’s much-improved reputation.
Wright leads a global team of 250 professionals at Diageo, with responsibility for corporate, brand and employee communications, government affairs and public policy, alcohol and responsibility and corporate citizenship. What that means in practice is that Wright’s remit includes corporate communications, public affairs, issues management and—critically—Diageo’s corporate social responsibility activities, all of which blur and blend together as the company seeks to establish itself as the industry leader when it comes to responsible drinking issues around the world.
Diageo’s response to the controversy surrounding its products involves a three-pronged approach that draws on all of the disciplines that Wright oversees: partnership and policy development in conjunction with organizations such as the World Health Organisation designed to reduce alcohol-related harm; internal policies and practices that focus on everything from the way it develops new products to its marketing activities; and proactive programming designed to raise awareness of issues such as drunk driving or binge drinking.
One particularly notable initiative involved the launch of the company’s DrinkIQ initiative about two years ago, first reaching out to Diageo employees, providing them with some of the basic science around alcohol issues—answering questions such as what constitutes a “unit” of alcohol—and providing them with information they can use to become brand ambassadors and engage others in discussions about those issues. Those employees have in turn reached out to regulators, customers and others with the company’s messages and positions.
But Diageo has also been proactive in its approach to broader social issues. Its Skills for Life initiative helps disadvantaged people in developing markets start new businesses or prepare for the world of work; its Water for Life commitment supports projects that help people without access to clean, drinkable water; and the company is always among the first responders to global disasters.
Wright joined Diageo as communications director in 2000 and was named director of corporate relations—a title he prefers for its focus on stakeholder relationships—in 2004. Earlier, he had spent six years at Boots the Chemist, first as head of public relations and later as communications director, and had worked on the consultancy side of the business with Golley Slater Brooker (where he was managing director), Chilmark, and Gwynne Hart (later part of Grayling).
Wright is also active in politics—in the early 80s, he served as a political offer for the Social Democrats (now the Lib Dems) and in the 90s was a volunteer speechwriter for then-leader Paddy Ashdown—and in the public relations profession. He was president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2001 and served on the Institute’s Council for almost a decade. In 2008, he was award the Institute’s Stephen Tallents Medal, which recognizes outstanding achievements in and contributions to public relations.