Jane Fletcher: Stirring up controversy

The controller of press and publicity at Channel 4 is enthusiastic about working on programmes that cause a stir. Sara Luker reports.

Jane Fletcher: 'I fee like I'm only just getting going here'
Jane Fletcher: 'I fee like I'm only just getting going here'

In the flesh, Channel 4's controller of press and publicity completely belies her rather stern and corporate photo on the channel's website.

Jane Fletcher, who took the role permanently in June last year, is warm, chatty and has a wicked sense of humour. The 39-year-old wastes no time in pointing out the slightly phallic nature of the entrance to the Channel 4 office when viewed from above.

She is also extremely straight talking and it is easy to believe her when she says she 'does not take any shit'.

A self-confessed 'up for it' kind of woman, Fletcher has had a varied career, ranging from newspapers to book publishing. However, she could have been forgiven for losing her enthusiasm back in 2007 after being thrust into the spotlight of an ill-fated BBC press conference that the media labelled 'Tiaragate'.

Journalists at the conference were shown a trailer of an RDF documentary series A Year with the Queen. It appeared to show the Queen storming out of a photoshoot with celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. It was later revealed that the footage was edited incorrectly and the Queen was actually walking into the shoot. The incident led to an independent inquiry, the Wyatt Report, and the resignation of Peter Fincham, then controller of BBC One, and his publicity head - Fletcher.

'We could not have picked a more prominent person to portray in a bad way - wrongly,' she reflects. 'It was like many crisis comms situations - a combination of mistakes and unique situations that all happen at the same time and take you by surprise. We should have been quicker and communicated what had happened, and why, as soon as possible.

'Crisis comms is about managing expectations - I hate the perception that PR is full of people who just say "yes" and flounce off. PR is about the difficult conversations, as well as the enjoyable ones.'

Fletcher looks back at that time as a lesson learned and an experience that has heightened her instincts.

It certainly appears not to have hampered relationships with her fellow comms professionals and the press. The Daily Telegraph's media journalist Neil Midgley says of Fletcher: 'There's nobody I would rather have in my corner during a crisis. She has that rare ability to stay fierce without using the "hairdryer" treatment.'

Fletcher's degree in history saw career advisers nudge her towards a role as a librarian or teacher - neither of which appealed, so she went travelling. 'My parents thought I would never do anything,' she laughs. 'It's probably why they arranged work experience for me at the Daily Mail.'

After two years at the Daily Mail, Fletcher realised that journalism was not for her.

So she bagged her first PR job at publishers Thames & Hudson before deciding that TV PR was where she wanted to be. 'Recruiters were not having any of it,' she says scornfully. 'They told me I would never get out of book PR. I hated being pigeonholed so early in my career.'

A lucky encounter with someone at a school reunion, who just happened to work in HR at the BBC, changed her fortunes.

'I stuck myself to her and said "please, you have to get me a job". She mentioned one job that no-one wanted and I jumped at the chance.'

The job was a publicist for BBC Choice.

'I was so excited and thought my life was complete,' she remembers with a smile.

Various roles at the BBC followed, including overseeing PR for the launch of BBC Three, until 'Tiaragate' ended her time with the broadcaster.

Some time out and reflection followed until a call from Stuart Murphy, now director of programmes for Sky 1HD and Sky Entertainment, put Fletcher back in the game at production firm Twofour.

'Jane hides her intellect, strategic brain and huge experience under a ridiculous sense of humour, which means working with her is like working with a charming and fragrant version of Donald Rumsfeld's comedy sister,' says Murphy.

Her Twofour role reaffirmed Fletcher's passion for TV comms and soon Channel 4 came calling.

During three years at Channel 4, Fletcher has witnessed a lot of change - notably David Abraham's appointment as chief executive in 2010, PR head Matt Baker stepping down after 12 years and Dan Brooke becoming head of its combined marketing, comms and corporate relations functions.

When Baker left, Fletcher took over his role as acting controller of press and publicity - being affirmed in the role last June after an external recruitment process.

'I feel like I'm only just getting going here,' she says excitedly. 'I want the comms team to be ahead of the curve, winning awards and being so good that others are trying to poach them from me.

'We have a blank canvas at Channel 4 to be as creative as we want, push boundaries and stand out from the crowd. Where else can you be promoting Big Fat Gypsy Wedding one day and then a serious documentary on Syria the next?

'We are going to work on programmes that are going to cause controversy and stir up debate. The challenge as comms professionals is to believe in what we are doing and have the nerve to be able to cope with the backlash even when the heat is rising.'

For someone who has crossed the Queen and survived to tell the tale with her reputation intact, one suspects that any future crises may be rather small fry to her in comparison.

CV
2010 Acting controller of press and publicity (confirmed in post June 2011), Channel 4
2009 Head of press, Channel 4
2008 Development producer, Twofour
2005 Head of comms, BBC One, Drama and BBC Films
2004 Head of comms, BBC Drama
2003 Head of comms, BBC Two
2002 Launch PR manager, BBC Three
2001 Publicist, BBC Drama
1999 Publicist, BBC Choice
1996 Press officer, Thames & Hudson publishers
1994 PA/researcher/commissioning editor, Daily Mail

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Being asked to be the launch press manager for BBC Three. I was a long way out of my comfort zone but I learned so much.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have been mentored by many great people. Among the most notable are Helen Scott Lidgett, initially at Thames & Hudson but who has been a wise counsel ever since, and Vanda Rumney, who both encouraged and pushed me at the BBC. Without her, I would not have achieved what I have, while Peter Fincham guided me through the aftermath of Tiaragate.

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

Work hard and get lots of sleep. Take every opportunity on offer and constantly challenge yourself. And don't forget to have fun.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Tenacity, enthusiasm and the ability to learn from mistakes.

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