Profile: Richard Sambrook, chief content officer and global vice-chairman, Edelman

Kate Magee asks Edelman's new global vice-chairman Richard Sambrook about his recent shift from the top of the BBC to PR.

Richard Sambrook
Richard Sambrook

It was one of the most high-profile 'hack to flack' moves to date. Six months ago, the BBC's director of global news Richard Sambrook jumped ship to head Edelman's crisis and issues department, and to create 'a new global content offering'.

Sambrook, 54, had been at the BBC for 30 years when he decided the time was right to do something different. But the man who was involved in launching the BBC's News 24 channel, the news website and, most recently, Arabic and Persian TV, says this new world of PR is not all that different.

'When working as a senior manager in the BBC or any other organisation, you end up basically doing corporate comms. There are many aspects of the job that are the same: building relationships and partnerships, arguing a case. It's all diplomacy,' he says.

It seems his co-workers felt the same.

'I didn't get much criticism. Mainly, I had a lot of colleagues come and ask me how to make the move into PR,' he smiles.

Mike Seymour, Edelman's current head of crisis and issues, is in the process of handing over the reins to Sambrook, who has personal experience of dealing with high-profile crises himself.

Sambrook quotes Seymour's phrase that there are two types of crisis: the cobra and the python. The cobra hits instantly: 'The week I took over BBC News in 2001, there was an IRA car bomb outside the TV Centre that blew up the newsroom,' he says. 'The other sort is the python, which wraps itself around you and then starts to squeeze, and it's not until it's too late that you realise how serious it is. That's what the Hutton Inquiry was like.'

Sambrook was responsible for responding to Alastair Campbell's criticisms of the BBC and organising the body's position during the controversial inquiry in 2003.

He says this period was the worst of his career. 'For anybody involved, it was a terrible moment, particularly because David Kelly died. Nobody can be involved in something such as that and not be affected by it.'

Although he still believes in broad terms that the BBC was right to report the story, Sambrook does admit there were mistakes made. He adds: 'It's quite interesting that in Tony Blair's autobiography he said his and the Government's reputation never recovered from it, but the BBC's did quite quickly. I believe part of that was because the BBC admitted error and transparently changed the way it went about doing things in the future.'

When asked if he has spoken to Campbell since, he replies: 'No and I don't expect to. Our paths don't cross and I don't think either of us would seek the other one out really.' But now that Sambrook is in PR himself, what would happen if he met him at an industry event? 'It's fine, I don't hold any personal grudges about it at all.'

Sambrook, who was born in Kent, graduated with an English degree from Reading University and secured a trainee reporter position at Thomson Regional Newspapers in Wales in 1977.

Three years later he began his 30-year stint at the BBC as a sub-editor rewriting newsreaders' scripts.

The news landscape changed dramatically during Sambrook's time at the BBC.

He is a firm believer in the power of digital and was the first BBC board member to have his own blog. For journalism this is both an opportunity, as a source of material and a threat because people spend more time on social media than major news portals. But he sees it as an opportunity for the PR industry.

'What I see is news separating out to a degree. Basic news has become more commoditised and headlines are ambient. Then you get the specialist services that are quite deep. The worry is there's a gap in the middle where people are not finding out as much as they want or need to,' he says.

It is here that Edelman's content offer steps in. Rather than being lost in the gap, the agency will help organisations take advantage of the space to speak directly to consumers and stakeholders without being mediated by the media, or having to wait to be reported upon.

'Companies need to work out how to unlock their expertise, and present it in a way that is transparent, open and accessible. This can have huge value for the public,' says Sambrook. For example, he says, the expertise of a healthcare firm is valuable for families affected by a health issue.

Peter Barron, Google's head of comms and public affairs, and a former editor of BBC's Newsnight, says: 'At the BBC, Richard always had a reputation for being an early adopter of new ways of communicating.

I saw him the other day and it's clear he is bringing a similarly forward-looking approach to his new trade.'

 

Richard Sambrook's turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

Going to BBC's TV news in 1984 when Ron Neil was there. The whole place was being revolutionised and it was great being part of those changes.

I loved TV production - it was what I wanted to spend my time doing.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Neil, who was head of TV news when I switched to television from radio. He completely transformed TV news and was very supportive to me.

- What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

Move around. Don't stay in one place for too long. People sometimes feel they can only move vertically. But I believe actually moving horizontally broadens and strengthens you. The broader your experience, the more you bring to your next role. If you have been in one job for five years, you have been there too long.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

I look for people who are outwardly focused, who are interested in other people, business and industry, and not just themselves. They have a curiosity about the world. They take notice of what is going on around them.

 

CV

2010: Chief content officer and global vice-chairman, Edelman

2004: Director of global news, BBC

2000: Director of sport then news, BBC

1996: Head of news gathering, BBC

1992: News editor, BBC radio and TV news

1984: Producer, BBC TV news

1980: Sub-editor, BBC radio news

1977: Trainee reporter, Thomson Regional Newspapers: Merthyr Express, Pontypridd Observer and South Wales Echo

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