Joanna Richards | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2023

Joanna Richards

Strategic Communications Director, Europe



“Work with legacy in mind and towards a better tomorrow – make choices to that end, keeping a sharp eye on the data and keeping good company in terms of ethics.” 

Jo Richards has chalked up more than 20 years’ experience across corporate, crisis and consumer communications. For the past 11 of these, she has been at Coca-Cola, working in communications roles across the business, in the UK and Europe as well as at a global level. As strategic communications director for Europe since the start of this year, she leads the corporate communications, leadership, internal communications and brand PR teams. Richards spent the first half of her career working in agencies including Fishburn Hedges and Consolidated Communications, where her first client was Disney (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), and the breadth of her experience has given her a keen sense of operational realities at all levels of the organisation, meaning that she is able to foster a culture of collaboration and cooperation. Her goal has been to incite the same level of ambition for the internal and external communications agenda as Coca-Cola applies to its marketing briefs. In a relatively short time in her current role, Richards has refreshed the comms team structure, aligning people to strategic priorities for a more focused approach to critical areas such as water, packaging, social impact, health and nutrition. She is as ambitious about engaging and inspiring people around Coca-Cola’s broader intent to create a positive impact in the communities it serves, as new brand campaign launches. It’s clear from talking to colleagues and agency leaders who work with Richards that she has high standards but cares deeply about the culture of her team and the broader organisation, and believes in the freedom to challenge and debate. 

How do you define innovation?
Challenging what’s possible, pushing into new frontiers.

What is the most innovative PR or marketing initiative you've seen over the past 12 months?
While the new Apple iPhone 15 film has had a hard landing with some media and is dividing critics, I’m in the “love it” camp. In today’s environment, it requires vision, courage and rigor to raise your head and communicate with consumers on sustainability actions, and for me, the Mother Nature film shows all three.

In your opinion, which brands and/or agencies are most innovative in their approach to PR and marketing?
We talk a lot at Coca-Cola about an enterprise mindset as a key component of innovation and competitive edge, and there’s a lot to emulate and learn from the mindset of start-up brands and businesses. Energetic, ambitious, hyper-focused on ROI and the look of success, while operating below the radar and without the constraints of reputational risk.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider to be innovative.
The big innovations that I’ve worked on have been ones where I’ve been lucky enough to piggyback on the brilliance of some remarkable, constructively-disruptive colleagues. I’ve worked with some extraordinary innovators at Coke right across the breadth of the business: launching new products, experimenting with new digital technologies and – closest to my heart – innovating with new packaging formats in support of our sustainability goals, including the world’s first food-grade bottle made using recycled marine litter.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation? 
My daughter. She’s six, with boundless ingenuity in pursuit of great creations – and a great proponent of the belief that anything is possible when you have access to scissors and Sellotape.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
By stepping away from my own frustration into an activity where my brain can relax – which it does in nature, in the sea, or, failing that, while cooking. Ideas will then surface at random, often total nonsense, but sometimes there’s a eureka element. I once solved the mystery as to how Stonehenge was constructed in a dream – but unfortunately couldn’t remember it in the morning.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
If I really had access to the whole industry, I’d probably prefer to listen to what others have learned. But, my two cents: work with legacy in mind and towards a better tomorrow – make choices to that end, keeping a sharp eye on the data showing direction of travel and keeping good company in terms of ethics and ideas across your network. Be brave, be prepared to fail, learn and come back stronger.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
Something involving binoculars. Probably working as a bush ranger in a conservation park.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has provided inspiration over the past year?
It’s a huge luxury being able to dip into different content online to learn, spark new thoughts and ideas, but I’m still a big champion of offline ‘pause’ moments for inspiration and regeneration. Most recently, I have loved The Lost Words – a book that celebrates the forgotten beauties of nature through the media of poetry and art. It’s timely reminder that we are the custodians of both our environment and our language, which we neglect at the peril of our children.

How can the PR and communications industry harness innovation to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?
I’m not sure that this one is about innovation. It’s about being clear on your ethics and acting on them, with the intent to make a difference, every day.