Tom Kelly - No more cat and mouse

Network Rail's director of comms says the Leveson Inquiry is helping to change the way communicators do business. Matt Cartmell reports.

Tom Kelly: 'Transparency should be about all of us, including the media'
Tom Kelly: 'Transparency should be about all of us, including the media'

The man whom the Reverend Ian Paisley once described as making 'Machiavelli look like a rank amateur' seems to have a knack of being in the right place at the most scrutinised time.

Having worked alongside Alastair Campbell as Tony Blair's spokesman and leading the Northern Ireland Office through the peace process, Tom Kelly has taken on high-stress roles at BAA and the FSA. Now he has joined Network Rail - just as its CEO waives his proposed bonus after pressure from the Government's Transport Secretary.

While Kelly says he is still getting his head around the finer points of Network Rail, he identifies its fundamental issue as 'too many trains on not enough track'.

Director of government comms for London 2012 Godric Smith, who worked as a fellow spokesman for Blair, describes Kelly as someone who is 'never afraid to speak the truth to power but always combines great judgement with absolute discretion'.

Belying a reputation for being deadpan and ultra-cautious, 56-year-old Kelly seems to have relaxed with age.

The man who a couple of years ago straight-batted a PRWeek request for comment with the words 'I have no desire to become the story' is surprisingly candid, warm and reflective on his past,as well as the role that comms has played in his life.

It was taking the inquisitional lobby briefings for six years that shaped his attitude towards the private sector comms roles that followed. 'When you are standing in front of journalists, you have to recognise that what you say one day, people are going to ask you about the next day and the next day and the next day. So, it has to be credible,' he says.

But many will remember Kelly for a notorious strategy document that he penned, which planned a PR offensive to secure a 'Yes' vote in the referendum on the Belfast agreement. It got into the hands of the media and led Paisley to make his infamous comparison to Machiavelli.

Kelly still curls up with embarrassment: 'I wrote this document, and being a bit wet behind the ears, I put a lot of effort into it. I was very proud of it, but I didn't realise it was going to be circulated rather widely. Not surprisingly, it was leaked.

'What was meant to be a very private document led the BBC's Nine O'Clock News. It was an interesting baptism.'

When Kelly took the stand at the Hutton Inquiry into the Iraq war, he gained notoriety for applying the term 'Walter Mitty' to weapons expert Dr David Kelly, leading MP Glenda Jackson to dub him 'beneath contempt'.

Campbell tells PRWeek that he relied on Kelly as a deputy who helped him through 'a very difficult period': 'He was strong on detail, very calm and good at seeing the position from various angles.'

'The Number 10 comms team came under immense pressure but again Tom was a strong voice of calm. He made his "Walter Mitty" mistake with regard to the inquiry into Dr Kelly's death, but it is testimony to the reputation he had with the press by then that, although they ran it as a story, very few were calling for his head.'

Kelly maintains that the Hutton Inquiry served a useful purpose. 'In some ways, the whole series of inquiries that went on around Iraq did preview the focus on transparency that we have seen since then.'

He points to MPs' expenses, the financial services industry and News International as being the subjects of extreme media scrutiny since that time. 'The Leveson Inquiry is a good thing,' he says. 'It's allowing us to debate and hear how we get our information. Transparency should be about all of us, including the media.'

Kelly recalls his work at the Financial Services Authority and its reporting on the failure of the Royal Bank of Scotland: 'We made a mistake in terms of our initial report. Five hundred pages later, I'm not sure that the second report issued all these years later revealed anything fundamentally new. But it was important because it shows that accountability has moved from being dealt with as just a compliance issue, to being a living part of the organisation.'

His approach seems to have changed since his days at BAA - one former BAA insider suggested that the company was 'almost reclusive' during that period.

Kelly also admits that his era in Downing Street was characterised by Labour 'reacting to a "gotcha" media culture' that led to a focus on 'controlling the message'.

When asked if Network Rail suffers from the same lack of transparency, he carefully responds: 'There has been work to be done in every organisation that I have worked in.'

Kelly declines to comment on the work of Downing Street's current communicators, but adds that he does not miss lobby briefings. 'I can honestly say I haven't read a lobby note since I walked out. I miss the breadth of the agenda, but I don't miss the process,' he says.

Kelly has done a remarkable job at staying out of the media spotlight. He does not feature in Blair's autobiography, apart from in a group photo, and only agreed to this interview because of the Leveson Inquiry, which has brought 'a profound change in the way we do business'.

'We need to move away from the "gotcha" game of hiding what we are doing and the media having to find it out,' he says, leaning back in his chair. 'We play cat and mouse, but we need a more mature way of dealing with it.'

Kelly himself seems to provide evidence that this change of approach is achievable.

CV

2012 Director of comms, Network Rail
2010 Director of comms, Financial Services Authority
2007 Director of comms, BAA
2001 Official spokesman, Downing Street
1998 Director of comms, UK Government Northern Ireland Office
1982 Various roles including reporter, producer, political editor, news editor, BBC
1979 Reporter, The Belfast Telegraph

Tips from the top

What was your biggest career break?

Getting my first job at The Belfast Telegraph as a graduate trainee. It was a transition from the world of my youth to the real world of reporting bombs and bullets. I have looked for roles where the decisions I take affect the daily lives of people all over the country, but the solutions are often not easy and need careful thought.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have had a succession of mentors, some of whom have been comms professionals and some who have not. I have taken some of their advice, but I wish I had taken most of the advice that I ignored.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

If a job looks interesting, go for it. Take risks.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Someone who engages in content but can separate the wheat from the chaff.

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