Following Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will pull out of the Paris climate agreement, Hill+Knowlton’s energy and industrials MD, Simon Whitehead, discusses the rise of renewable energy, the key to crisis management and how he relaxes.
You specialise in corporate PR with a focus on the energy and industrial sectors. What drew you do these sectors? How have they changed over the years?
When I started my career I worked in international project finance and became very involved in the financing of industrial facilities, particularly in Russia and the Middle East. This has been my focus ever since.
The big change over the last 25 years has been how companies now see decarbonisation as good for business rather than a cost.
The energy transition is happening at pace and is completely changing the approach in the industrials sector.
Your clients include the likes of Shell, GE Oil & Gas, Dong Energy, E.ON and more. Of all the campaigns you’ve worked on to date, which is the one you’re most proud of?
I am very proud of all the work we do – but I look back proudly on the campaign we led with RenewableUK on changing perceptions of the wind industry in the UK. It’s campaigns like this one that have ensured that renewable energy contributes around a quarter of the UK’s electricity today.
How is working in the energy and industrial communications different from other types of PR and comms? What makes it unique?
Energy and industrials is an industry segment that is typically low interest to consumers and yet provides goods and services that are needed for us all to survive. You can’t say that about many sectors – and the ramifications about how to plan and manage creative communications in the segment are enormous.
What would you say are the biggest challenges facing PR and comms today? And how can companies/agencies meet them?
Social media and the power of the public have made communications accessible to all in real-time. This has made communications complex to manage and to identify what is true or false (or fake, even).
Communications programmes need to be authentic, driven by purpose, creative to ensure cut-through and led by social media.
What’s the best advice you could give to someone who’s just starting out in PR?
Become an expert in something interesting, and then build yourself out over time to be a broad all round communicator. If you are not working on social media and digital issues then you will quickly find you are irrelevant.
Catastrophes like the 2010 Gulf oil spill really drive home the importance of crisis management in the energy sector. As a litigation comms specialist yourself, what would you say is the key to safeguarding a client’s reputation in times of crisis?
I believe that people today want companies managing a crisis to over communicate around what has happened and what the company will do. They also want senior executives to do that quickly and directly with those affected and with the broader public. Prevention is the key, but preparation in case of a problem is just as important.
Outside of the realm of communications, what do you do to relax?
I enjoy family, friends and being in charge of the kitchen!