from Titan Magazine (Summer 2003)
U.K. Alumna's Proven Cool
in a Crisis
Even if they’ve never had to use them—knock
wood—most communications majors who studied public relations
remember lessons in crisis communications during their days at Cal
State Fullerton. Jan Shawe ’78 (M.A. communications)
has built a reputable career in her native England, in part, by
helping major corporations successfully recover from misfortune
and tough times.
For more than two years, she has been on the executive
board of J Sainsbury plc where she is director of corporate relations.
Sainsbury’s is a major U.K. food retailer with supermarkets
in the U.K. and New England. Brought on by the company’s group
chief executive, Sir Peter Davis—with whom she first worked
in 1980—Shawe is on board to help restore the 150-year-old
company to the top of an already-competitive industry that has suffered
in recent years with the arrival of American retailing giant Wal-Mart
and the sensational foot-and-mouth disease epidemic.
It’s been quite a journey from her days at Cal
State Fullerton, which began 27 years ago when she was a student
in her mid-20s looking for a career change. Shawe became graduate
research assistant to communications professor Ed Trotter—who
has remained a close family friend—and flourished in her studies.
“I loved the California ‘can do’ society and the
assumption that everything is possible if you want it enough,”
says Shawe. “In California, it’s much easier to go back
to university as an adult.
“And being older, I thought harder about which
classes I wanted to take. I knew I’d work terribly hard because
I was paying for them. So you turn up on time for every class, you
take notes and guess what? You get A’s [laughs]. At that time
too, the U.S. was far ahead of the U.K. in recognizing and formalizing
“I loved the way Cal State Fullerton had classes
early in the morning, late in the evening and during the holidays—if
you worked, they could accommodate you. It was so wonderfully open
to different students from all sorts of backgrounds.”
After earning her degree, Shawe returned to England,
first working for international public relations agency Burson-Marsteller.
In 1980, she was hired as deputy head of public relations for Sainsbury’s,
at the time, the largest and most innovative supermarket in the
U.K.—and where she reported to then-marketing director Davis.
Two years later, Shawe became a director of Good Relations,
one of the country’s top public relations consulting firms.
In subsequent years, she managed a range of accounts including the
early days of the Eurotunnel, the launch of NutraSweet in the U.K.,
Weight Watchers, the Meat and Livestock Commission and the Bus and
Coach Council. She was then recruited to Reed Elsevier, a global
publisher, by Davis as director of corporate relations.
Following Reed’s successful turnaround, Shawe worked for the
Department of Trade and Industry and later, at the Tate Gallery
as acting head of development.
Davis tapped Shawe again, this time at Prudential,
one the country’s largest and oldest financial services companies—and
the American-based company’s namesake. At the heart of the
challenge was a national scandal over pensions.
“We went in partly to turn it completely around,”
explains Shawe. “It involved not only huge efforts internally
with large financial implications, but also fielding daily and numerous
calls from government, the media and consumer groups—at the
same time, supporting and motivating a very demoralized staff. A
good week was when we managed not to be in the press.”
At Sainsbury’s, the company is “about
halfway through” its three-year timeline of accomplishing
its goals. As for public relations strategies, Shawe says, “At
Reed, Prudential and here, internal communications is really important.
If you’re in a failing company or under siege, there’s
a huge issue about trying to keep employee morale up. But, it must
be in tune with what’s being said externally. You can’t
tell colleagues the world is rosy when they read the newspapers
Trotter, for one, is not surprised at his colleague’s
achievements. “It was clear Jan would become very successful.
What has impressed me about her career is her immense breadth. She
covers everything from investor relations and government affairs
to corporate charity and supplier relations with equal ease.”