Winners 2023

Communications professional of the year

Russ Brady
Director of group communications

It is 25 years since Russ Brady joined the then Co-operative Group, but the director of group communications has not lost any of his passion for the purpose-led Co-op. And today, though there are fewer members in his team, Brady believes they are producing more campaigning initiatives than ever before – as well as dealing with all the business-as-usual work for the group’s food retailer, insurance and legal businesses and Britain’s largest funeral provider.

Not that the 25 years have been all smooth sailing. In his time, Brady has had to deal with the unethical behaviour of the chairman of its ethical bank (since sold) and the normal travails of business life.

Over the past few years, the Co-op has restructured to improve the financial position of its balance sheet. But it also took the opportunity to refocus on its purpose and reappraise ‘who we are, what we are and what we stand for’, as Brady puts it. 

Much of that reappraisal has been anchored around the Co-op membership and the difference it offers: economic value (rewards), democratic values (the business is owned by its members) and, by extension, how members can support society and the communities in which they live.

Consequently, much of this work is now driven by the needs and views of the Co-op’s five million members, including this year’s Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign. 

Its members were appalled by the sight of gangs in their stores running amok. Co-op was the first major retailer to highlight the rise in looting and anti-social behaviour in its stores, which had shockingly increased by a third in the 12 months to June. But it also indicated police inaction: officers attend just two out of every ten criminal incidents reported by the Co-op, and indeed fail to show when the criminals have actually been apprehended.

Indeed, Brady believes the campaign might be one of the ‘most transparent and brave’ actions taken by a business. It has been a no-holds barred campaign, offering broadcasters unfettered access to CCTV imagery and undercover opportunities to see first-hand the crimes in action.

Its stance prompted other retailers to follow suit, which the Co-op welcomed, and the Government’s launch of the Retail Crime Action Plan and a specialist unit, bringing together business and police forces, to share intelligence and build a comprehensive picture of the organised crime gangs behind this upsurge.

Not that Brady and his team are resting on their laurels. They have yet to see any meaningful change in police attendance, and he is determined that the Co-op will not settle for ‘words on a page’. 

Indeed, he believes his team now has a direct mandate to campaign on issues that have a link to the Co-op’s membership. That’s not to say that he wasn’t involved groundbreaking campaigns before now. The Co-op, under his direction, was among the first businesses to highlight (and attempt to tackle) loneliness in the community and also the issue of modern slavery. 

Working with two charities, it created a pathway to employment for people rescued from modern slavery, and shared its findings and initiatives with other businesses, to encourage them to follow suit. Similarly, this year it has worked with charities and trade unions to develop a series of people policies for its 57,000 colleagues, and a nine-step programme to tackle social mobility. Again, these have been made available for all.

Brady has set up the 27-person group communications function so that it serves both its primary audiences – colleagues, media and politicians – but also has natural affiliations with functions such as marketing, financial and treasury and procurement, so that it can work in partnership when needed on more strategic campaigns. Brady admits that he struggles to understand how anyone can work with dotted lines and matrices. 

But what really excites Brady today is the ability for the Co-op to mobilise its members to tackle social and local issues, such as mental health and bereavement, and campaign with ‘boots on the ground’. And, despite 25 years of service, he is still excited about what the future might hold. ‘We’ve got our mojo back,’ Brady says.