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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 public relations.

“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 every day.”

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.”