Richard Stokoe, head of comms, London Fire Brigade

The former LGA man is drawing on his straight-talking reputation to shake things up at the London Fire Brigade, finds Matt Cartmell.

Richard Stokoe: head of comms, London Fire Brigade (Emilie Fjola Sandy)
Richard Stokoe: head of comms, London Fire Brigade (Emilie Fjola Sandy)

Richard Stokoe may not have been the obvious choice to head up comms at the world's fourth largest fire and rescue service.

The 35-year-old has built a reputation as a straight-talking alternative to the usually over-cautious public sector comms expert. He acknowledges there is a contrast between himself and the 145-year-old quasi-military institution he joined this May.

'In the brigade you do need that person who does the rigid military operation. It's the person who says: "There's the fire, I want people in breathing apparatus over there." It makes perfect sense for saving lives, but it doesn't make sense in comms.'

Since joining the brigade he has actively encouraged his 28-strong comms team to think more for themselves, and even answer back if they disagree with him. 'I'm getting people to think differently and relax,' he explains.

Stokoe made his name at the Local Government Association, as a vehement and aggressive defender of the UK's much-derided councils, while taking the body's target list from a handful of trade mags to Newsnight and the Daily Star.

'I do think local government is the hardest PR there is, unless you work for British American Tobacco. The difference is there is only a public health charity, Ash, that attacks British American Tobacco. If the council has 800 activities, you've got 800 different lobbying groups that can attack you.'

While at the LGA, he plotted a course through crises such as Baby P, the Icelandic banks collapse, the snow-gritting outrage and three strikes. And now he is turning his ire towards a more elemental force: fire.

'It seems really cliched, but the Fire Brigade is one of the few organisations I can think of where if you get comms right, you can stop people dying. There are not many places where you can do that,' he says.

When PRWeek asks Stokoe what he is like to work with, he bounds out of the room, returning minutes later with a sheepish looking employee called Jane Pegler, his internal comms manager.

'He's different ...

in a good way,' she says carefully as Stokoe eyeballs her with amusement.

'He's challenging the brigade comms team on how we have done things and getting us to question why we have been doing them that way. It's quite refreshing. He does it in a humorous way - he's not heavy handed.'

When Pegler adds that Stokoe has also brought bad language into the comms unit, her views are suddenly no longer required.

On her exit, Stokoe explains how he came to follow the comms route: 'It's politics and current affairs that got me. I got into current affairs when I was a kid.

It was 1980, I came into the front room and the storming of the Iranian embassy was on TV.'

Having scored a 2.2 in politics at Lancaster University, Stokoe went on to work in a call centre earning £4.40 an hour for two-and-a-half years. An inauspicious start, but one that was rectified after returning from a trip to New Zealand where he worked with underprivileged children.

'I got back and thought, I'm 25,' he remembers. 'I've got apple picking, call centres and working with underprivileged kids on my CV. What on earth do I do?'

He emailed his CV to the 100 or so MPs who had email addresses at that time and Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow emailed back.

'I'd never met a politician or a civil servant. I went to meet this MP and he said, "you can be a researcher for me". Next week I was working in Portcullis House,' he says.

This led to a stint as head of press at the London mayoral campaign for Simon Hughes, from whom he learned a lot about 'how not to do a campaign'.

'Simon is a genuinely lovely guy,' says Stokoe. 'But we didn't have a focal point for the campaign. Ken Livingstone was Mr Transport and Steven Norris was Mr Crime. We didn't have that core narrative.'

Although he balks at being described as 'laddish' in PRWeek's Power Book, Stokoe's mischievous grin suggests he has not entirely stuck to the straight and narrow during either his work or private life.

While answering our Turning Points questions, Stokoe pours over a previous issue of PRWeek, gleefully ridiculing the answers given by one in-house PR who will remain nameless.

But he is deadly serious about the job in hand, particularly in light of the ongoing public spending cuts: 'It's got to be all about cutting costs, saving lives and stopping fires. If something doesn't relate to those three things, then why are we doing it?'

CV

2010 Head of comms, London Fire Brigade

2006 Head of news, Local Government Association

2005 Head of press, GLA Liberal Democrat Group

2004 Head of press, Simon Hughes London mayoral campaign

2003 Press officer, Sarah Teather Brent East by-election

2000 Parliamentary researcher, Paul Burstow MP

RICHARD STOKOE'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Going to work in the House of Commons. It was probably the best job I'll
ever have. Walking in the corridors of power was incredible.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Paul Burstow MP; Edward Welsh, who was media and campaigns director at
the LGA; and Nick Carthew, head of office for the Liberal Democrat group
at the GLA. Nick is a really good manager - very strategic. As for
Edward Welsh, I could list many things. He's the best manager I've ever
had. Management is such a vital thing but it's often forgotten. He said
'you may be a good press officer, but that's not as good as running a
good press office.' He also taught me how to play the politics of
politics.

- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?

The world doesn't come to you, you have to go to the world. If you don't
get off your arse then no-one will come and find you at all. Keep
plugging away - eventually you will strike it lucky if you're good
enough.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

Innovation, hunger and balls. A willingness to try things that are
different. And people who argue back.

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