A HISTORY OF FLIGHT
The director of communications and government affairs at Airbus has taken on some tough briefs in her career. But her insistence on building face-to-face relationships with stakeholders and colleagues has stood her in good stead. Neil Gibbons reports. Photographs by Sam Friedrich
Who wants an easy life? Certainly not Katherine Bennett, UK director of communications and government affairs for aircraft manufacturer Airbus. In a constantly challenging career, she has often found herself swimming against the tide, having taken up the cause of the maligned, the misunderstood, or the underdog.
In a professional journey that began in government affairs but has broadened to take in a wider comms brief, Katherine has frequently championed causes that might not tally with public sentiment or political vogue – from PR for tobacco firms, to lobbying against the National Lottery.
Raised and educated in Banstead, Surrey, Katherine at first had little interest in a comms career. “I was always envious of people who knew what they wanted to do,” she says. “Some people had that urge to become doctors or lawyers, but I was always unsure of where I wanted to go.”
It was, she says, only in final year of her degree that she began to develop an inkling for corporate affairs. Studying for a Combined Arts degree and majoring in History and Politics at Leicester, she found herself fascinated by politics as well as the process of research and reading.
At the same time, she made sure she gained a rounded university experience. “I was quite studious. But I made sure I made best of being away in a new place. It was more of a life experience for me. I threw myself into life in my hall of residence. I was treasurer of the JCR. I played Lacrosse for university. I was making sure I acquired skills that would help me to develop in business.”
When Katherine left university in 1989, it was the beginning of the last recession but she didn’t have to wait long for PR to come calling. She was recruited by Hill & Knowlton’s sports marketing division where she worked with various companies. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she says. “I was dealing with the Rugby World Cup, doing a tennis tournament at Queens Club. I even remember walking onto the pitch at Twickenham.”
But the economic climate was challenging. And having only been there for six months, she was made redundant. “It was a case of last in, first out,” she says. “But I was told that I was the only one that shed tears when the HR director called us in and told us.”
Still, she believes that display of passion may have stood her in good stead because, although she briefly found work with another small firm, she was asked to return to Hill & Knowlton when another opportunity came up in the public affairs division, which had just won significant new business.
Her boss was Tom McNally (now Lord McNally of Blackpool, head of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords). “I learnt such a lot from him, especially about speech writing, but also working for MPs and doing briefings.”
Her main role was on a lobbying campaign against the National Lottery, on behalf of Vernons Pools. But she also worked for the RSPCA – “A very interesting client. When you’re working for the charitable sector, you’re aware that every hour you put down on the time sheet is paid for by someone shaking a tin outside Tesco,” – and Nuclear Electric (now British Energy) where she later worked on secondment.
The in-house experience was something new. “I lecture about PR, and students always ask what the difference is between in-house and consultancy work. I always say the best thing about consultancy work is the variety whereas in-house you’re a specialist.”
The secondment lasted for two months but when she returned to Hill & Knowlton, she found herself looking for a change. She had been made an offer by Tom Halmos at the Corporation of London, to become a manager in the corporate affairs side and took the job despite interest from Vauxhall’s Keith Lockwood, a former client of hers at Hill & Knowlton.
Working at the Guild Hall in the centre of London, she was employed as an adviser for the Lord Mayor of London. But Vauxhall didn’t let up and it wasn’t long before she was won over, joining in 1996 to become head of local government affairs.
“I had to move from London, to Bedfordshire, which wasn’t easy,” she says. “One of your strengths in public relations is your network. But I still believe you need to live in the community you’re communicating for. You can’t talk with any gravitas unless you do.”
If she did find it a wrench leaving London, the blow was softened on her first day in Luton, when she met the man who is now her husband. And the work wasn’t bad either. She stayed in the local government role until 1997, when she took over as head of government affairs from Keith Lockwood, the man who had recruited her.
The national job was bigger and allowed her to get stuck into lobbying again. “The director of communication, Tony Spalding, put a lot of trust in me. I still talk about Tony to my team a lot now. He used to walk around the department demanding, ‘Why are you sat at your computer when you should be out meeting people?’ I find myself saying the same thing. Are we losing the opportunity to chat with stakeholders and journalists? We’re so obsessed with mobile and online communications, but you can’t build networks over email.”
Katherine was on a steep learning curve, and admits she was quite junior for the role. But her passion for the role didn’t go unnoticed, as Kevin Murray, chairman of Chime Communications, remembers.. “She is a very focused, very passionate professional, and is very tough about achieving results,” he says. “She knows the only way to get things done is to have a good team around her, and I have been impressed with her focus on ensuring she gets the best from everyone who works with her.”
“I still believe you need to live in the community you’re communicating for. You can’t talk with any gravitas unless you do”
That includes the most junior team members. In 1998, she started taking on interns – an approach she remains passionate about it, not least because it gives her team valuable management experience. “I’m a big fan. It really helps your degree to have a year out in business. And having interns around keeps you young.”
A colleague at Vauxhall was then-business affairs manager David Crundwell, who says she made a noticeable impact. “Katherine stood out from the crowd for her passion for working with her team, and then following their careers over time, coaching as they went,” he says. “She also had a strong interest in the social responsibility side of her work, building strong relationships with local community stakeholders.”
In 2000, she was given the opportunity to go on assignment to General Motors in Detroit. She was stationed in the Public Policy Centre. “That was quite eye opening. They had a very big team and had lobbying people who were specialists in one thing. They’d say, ‘I deal with CO2? What do you do?’ Me? I’m it.”
During a whistle-stop three-month assignment in North America , she also worked in Ottawa and spent time in Washington where she discerned huge differences in the lobbying environment. It was a world where lobbyists working for employees’ political action committees found senators eager to get their hands on their donations. “The senators would be lobbying you. It was weird.”
In 2000, she came back to the UK to face “the most awful time of my professional life” – the closing of Vauxhall’s Luton plant. “It was just before Christmas and, as head of government relations, I was right in the middle of things – briefing the government and MPs and on the steering group set up to help employees. I was the public face of Vauxhall and at one meeting I was sat round a table with people literally shouting at me. I was really feeling the strain but on the way home I told myself I mustn’t take it personally. And, of course, my inconvenience was nothing compared to the employees’”.
Her work didn’t go unnoticed. Katherine was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2004, having been put forward by the Department for Trade and Industry for her work with Luton’s communities. “I thought it was great for the corporate communications and government relations industries, which don’t often get recognised.”
And as a representative of the automotive industry, she has attracted plaudits too. According to Paul Everitt, CEO of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, “She is extremely focused, determined and definitely knows what she wants to achieve in any situation, her skill is to make delivering the right result fun and enjoyable.”
Soon afterwards, she was approached by Airbus and joined the firm in August 2004. “I’d been at Vauxhall for eight and a half years and hadn’t been unhappy, but it felt like the right time to move.” Based in Airbus’s UK headquarters in Bristol, she took on the newly created role of head of government affairs. (BAE Systems still owned 20% of Airbus then and it had handled government affairs up until then.)
Katherine was recruited for her experience in manufacturing but still had to learn all about aerospace. At the time Airbus was little known. “When I told the friends in my netball team I was joining Airbus, they asked ‘Is that the bus to Heathrow?’”
Estelle McCartney, director of communications consultancy Good Relations, has been advising Katherine on UK government affairs since 2005. “Katherine is a rare mix of a policy expert, a people person and a creative campaigner,” she says. “She is passionate about the contribution that aerospace makes to the UK economy and to the social and economic benefits of aviation. The combination of that passion, her professionalism and leadership of her team have helped to deliver some outstanding – and commercially significant – campaigns for Airbus.”
In 2007, Katherine became director of communications as well as government affairs. “It had always been an aspiration of mine to move more into the comms side. I had been nervous about getting too pigeon-holed in government. What I hadn’t realised was that it had been part of Airbus’s strategy when they recruited me.”
The transition was made easier by the fact she had a strong team to support her and was a known entity, “rather than a new face from London. But I still had to get their trust. So I sat down with each one to get to know them. It’s so important the team knows where you’re going. You have to understand their issues. Be positive. Engage with them. I always think the most important rule of leadership is ‘be there and care’.”
She also made sure she took no major decisions for the first 100 days in the role, preferring to spend that time listening, hearing and assimilating.
That’s not to say she lacked her own ideas of what to do with the role. “There were things I wanted to do differently. I wanted the department to become more like an agency, to become advisers to the rest of the company on how to be better communicators.”
To that end, she has been proactively trying to get the engineers in Airbus’ research and technology arm out talking. And she recently helped set up a women’s networking forum to encourage more women to choose aerospace as a career. At the first meeting, 80 people turned up.
Of course, the environment remains a key communications issue and Airbus is working with other parts of the aviation sector to let the public hear how they are tackling climate change. “Aviation is responsible for only 2% of man-made climate change, but people don’t see that.”
Other priorities include the centenary of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, being launched with a big event in conjunction with easyjet, Airbus’s third biggest customer. And there’s the advent of the huge new A350 XWB aircraft, due to fly in 2013.
On a more subtle level, Katherine is trying to usher in a new era of corporate communications, away from Airbus staunchly business-to-business approach. “I’m trying to get more consumer coverage” she says. “We were on BBC 2’s The Restaurant. They wanted the contestants to cater for big Bristol companies so we organised a dinner with the Lord Mayor. They baked a cake in the shape of a plane which was so awful it also featured on Harry Hill’s TV Burp. And we’ve had an approach from Question Time to do a show at one of our plants. It’s exciting.”
But her long-time calling – government relations – remains a priority. “Airbus has an ongoing relationship with the government. All governments want aerospace, economically, so they take a keen interest. But that makes it almost harder; you have to keep it ticking along.”
Curriculum Vitae: Katherine Bennett
2007 – present Director of Communications and Government Affairs, Airbus
2004 – 2007 Head of Government Affairs, Airbus
2000 – 3-month assignment in the US with GM
1997 – 2004 Manager, Government Affairs, Vauxhall Motors
1996 – 1997 Manager, Local Government – Vauxhall Motors
1995 – 1996 PR Department of the Corporation of London
1991 – 1995 Public Affairs – Hill & Knowlton
1990 – 1991 Sports Marketing Division – Hill & Knowlton
Education: Combined Arts degree, University of Leicester
Greenacre School, Banstead
Interests: Sport, piano