Winners 2019

Communications professional of the year

Richard Stephenson OBE
Communications director
Civil Aviation Authority

Richard Stephenson was sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport in November 2018, having just arrived from Helsinki, when he found out that he was being awarded an OBE in this year’s New Year’s Honours List for his ‘public and charitable work’.

His husband Liam had sent a text that an interesting envelope had arrived, asking whether he should open it, wait for Stephenson, 43, to arrive home or put it in the shredder. Open it, said Stephenson. The next text contained a photographer of a letter informing him, in confidence, that the former Prime Minister Theresa May had recommended the honour to the Queen.

‘My hands started shaking. I was Oh, my God; there was a tear in my eye. It was the last thing I expected. But it was the end of November, and you cannot say a word to anyone – even my parents didn’t know,’ he recalls. Stephenson told them shortly after Christmas.

The OBE was bestowed by Prince William. ‘I had a great chat with him. It’s just a brilliant day out. My mum and dad came, along with Liam and my American ‘sister’, who I grew up with. You’re allowed three guests, but I asked if I could bring another person and they said yes. I have to say that every single individual we met at the Palace, and everybody associated [with the Honours] are lovely and professional, and do everything they can to make it a special day for you.’

The OBE was for Stephenson’s ‘public and charitable work’, and he still has no idea who nominated him. ‘I’ve got it, and I’ll wear it,’ he says. ‘But hundreds of people have been involved in that work, and this is a reflection of those teams and groups of people who go overboard every day to do all this amazing stuff.’

Charitable work is in Stephenson’s blood. He organised a school disco in his second year of primary school, charging five pence admission, and has subsequently raised well over £1 million for a variety of charities – scaling Mount Kilimanjaro, traversing New Zealand, walking the Great Wall of China, doing a Husky dog sled across the Arctic Circle, are just some of his recent activities. He is also the former chairman of the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home Corporate Engagement Board, which he helped establish, and advisory board president of youth charity Kids Count.

But the citation also recognised his work at the Civil Aviation Authority, especially the role he played in the repatriation of 110,000 holidaymakers after Monarch Airlines went into administration in October 2017 – a feat he repeated this year with the repatriation of almost 150,000 Thomas Cook holidaymakers over two weeks.

In both events, he was determined that the communications team put themselves in the shoes of those impacted by the administrations – whether that was a holiday maker or a press officer at an airport handling multiple queries from worried travellers – and create an appropriate plan.

Stephenson joined the CAA in January 2015. ‘I have always loved aviation. I love planes. I love airports. I even fly little planes – I don’t have my licence yet, but I have taken loads of lessons,’ he says.

But even he could not anticipate the scope of the communications role he had taken on. One of his first big challenges was the Shoreham Airshow crash, in which 11 people died and 16 people were injured. ‘It’s the realisation that you are not just doing a job but you are in the middle of something where people died,’ he says. ‘It is about processing that, and making sure that you look at everything through the right lens with an appreciation for what has happened and what people are going through.’

He adds: ‘No day is ever the same. We champion consumer rights, particularly around passengers with reduced mobility to make air travel accessible; there’s an international dimension in terms of promoting aviation safety around the world; general aviation is important, so that people can fly their four seater Cessna planes at the weekend… drone innovation is fascinating, the list goes on.

‘I am passionate about what I do. I am passionate about bringing world class, solid communications to this organisation so that when we do have to do something, like a repatriation, we do it properly. We do it sensitively. We do it appropriately.’