Paul Holmes 24 Feb 2009 // 12:00AM GMT
Philip Dewhurst joined Gazprom Marketing & Trading as head of public relations in February of 2007, following a career in challenging positions on both the consultancy and corporate sides of the public relations business. Dewhurst had recently served as chairman of the Nuclear Industries Association and group corporate affairs director of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Earlier in his career, he was U.K. chief executive for Shandwick International, and held senior communications positions at Railtrack and for the Chemical Industries Association. He is also a past president of the U.K.’s Institute for Public Relations.
Paul Holmes, editor of The Holmes Report’s PR World, sat down to ask Dewhurst 10 questions.
Paul Holmes: Throughout your career, you appear to have been attracted to industries and organizations facing extreme controversies. What’s the attraction?
Philip Dewhurst: It is true that I have had my share of challenges—the chemical industry, rail privatisation, nuclear energy—but increasingly I think all in house communications directors have to be able to deal with crises and issues. Look at the banking and house building sectors today, and some of the major government agencies.
I am attracted to industries where I think professional communications can make a difference, and this was certainly the case in n nuclear, where we saw a huge turnaround in support. After 18 months as part of the Gazprom communications team, I can see a measurable difference in the way we are perceived. Also, it is great to be part of an organisation going through change, because you can have an influence on the inside as well as externally.
PH: Among those controversies, what was the most difficult communications challenge you faced?
PD: The railway industry in the mid 90s was probably the most challenging role, purely in terms of the intensity of the communication. We were seeing the beginning of the 24/7 news agenda and were one of the first organisations to feel its full effect. But it was also a great learning experience, as I got the opportunity to work with some outstanding people and to be in the thick of a major political and financial communications campaign.
PH: Was your attraction to controversy a factor in your decision to join Gazprom? What interested you about that position?
PD: It wasn’t controversy. It was simply that energy is at the top of the political and news agenda and here is a huge company with a massive role to play, about which very little was known outside Russia. Another big attraction was the opportunity to join a small company, Gazprom Marketing & Trading, that was on a massive growth curve, and to be part of that growth. As the Daily Mail put it, we have the look of a “lively technology start up, not a state-controlled juggernaut.”
PH: Are there particular challenges in managing the reputation of a company that is state-controlled and has occasionally been perceived as an instrument of Russian foreign policy?
PD: Many of the world’s greatest energy companies have an element of state control and it is not long ago that the U.K.’s leading energy companies were in state hands.
Working with Gazprom you never get the feeling that we are in any way controlled by the Russian state. In fact, nearly half our shares are in private hands and these shareholders are exerting an increasing influence. My senior colleagues are all very able businessmen and women, from a variety of business and energy industry backgrounds.
Again, it is all about spelling out our key messages, such as the fact that Gazprom has been supplying gas to Europe for 40 years and its export company has just celebrated its 35th birthday. Throughout that time, as far as I know, we have never reneged on a contract and in the last two years alone we have won thousands of new European customers.
PH: What are the challenges in preparing a Russian company—particularly one that had a reputation for opacity—for western standards of governance and transparency?
PD: When Gazprom Marketing & Trading was set up in 2004, we were determined that it should be as open and accountable as any U.K.-based company. In fact, transparency is one of our company values. We therefore publish full, audited accounts in the U.K. and our annual report is based on the format used by U.K. plcs. On a global scale, we are working with our advisers, including Gavin Anderson here in London, to build investor and media relations.
PH: Energy companies in general have an image problem. How committed is Gazprom to social responsibility and how difficult is it to overcome skepticism about that commitment?
PD: In Russia and many parts of Europe, Gazprom has a huge commitment to social responsibility, supporting education, the arts and sport. We are a principal sponsor of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
In the U.K., we are now working actively with our local communities and we want to be seen as a good citizen. For example, we support our local Mayors’ charities and our new local theatre. We also support relevant national charities such as Well Child and Piggy Bank Kids.
Gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels and has helped the U.K., for example, to meet emissions targets in the past. But we can also supply carbon credits and smart energy metering to help our customers become more energy and carbon efficient.
PH: What aspects of Gazprom public relations are best handled internally, rather than by outside agencies, and why? How much do you use PR agencies, and do you prefer to work with a single global agency of record, or with specific firms for specific tasks or specific markets?
PD: Because Gazprom’s vision is to become a leading global energy company, our communications is organised on a global basis, with communication hubs in major media and political centres, including Moscow, London, Brussels, New York, Washington, Berlin and Paris.
From the centre, Gazprom has created a global communication consortium, with in house specialists working seamlessly alongside consultancies such as Gavin Anderson, Ketchum and Gplus. Having worked in big consultancies as well as within major international organisations, I enjoy this way of working and it is producing positive results.
This approach also gives us the flexibility to put resources where they are most needed at the time. Alongside this, our central team in Moscow has been strengthened and reorganised, with the emphasis on international communications.
PH: Looking at all the markets where you do business around the world, is there one that presents particular difficulties or challenges?
PD: The energy market is very dynamic and Gazprom, with its huge reserves of gas, is ideally placed to serve markets around the world in the years ahead. To do this, we need to build political and public support in new markets as we enter them. We have done this successfully in the U.K. and many European markets, which are connected to the Russian gas fields by pipelines.
A major future challenge is to develop our liquefied natural gas assets so that we can supply major markets like North America and Asia with gas transported by tankers, to help these countries meet their growing demand for clean energy.
Building a global reputation takes time, and we are aware of the fact that more challenges will present themselves along the way. The last year has shown us that being proactive when issues arise is the best way forward and we have enjoyed some really good media results around the world. But there will always be more to do!
PH: With the exception of your own company, is there an organization out there that you admire for the way in which it manages its reputation, or an executive who you think really understands how to communicate?
PD: I admire many organizations and consultancies. Among the in-house communicators I really rate are Howell James (formerly of the BBC and the Cabinet Office, now Barclays) and Dick Fedorcio (Metropolitan Police), both outstanding professionals who seem to have an amazing ability to remain relaxed and cheerful at all times, despite the intense pressure of their roles .
On the business side, without sounding sycophantic, my CEO at Gazprom Marketing & Trading, Vitaly Vasiliev, is one of the best business communicators I have worked with. He is equally at ease being interviewed by the FT, Telegraph or Mail, or giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee. His door is always open to his PR adviser, he never gets rattled by the tough questions, always stays on message and manages to keep his sense of humour most of the time. What more could I ask?