Boardroom is right place for BBC comms

One of the first acts undertaken by incoming BBC director-general Tony Hall was to recruit former Labour culture secretary James Purnell to a newly established senior comms and strategy role.

Alec Mattinson: 'If Entwistle oversaw downgrading of the BBC's comms, Hall is sending a clear message that he intends to build it back up.'
Alec Mattinson: 'If Entwistle oversaw downgrading of the BBC's comms, Hall is sending a clear message that he intends to build it back up.'

It is a significant move, not least as it is a clear repudiation of the approach to comms taken by his predecessor George Entwistle.

The BBC’s reaction to the unfolding Jimmy Savile scandal has been roundly criticised – it was a response influenced by a downgrading of the organisation’s comms function.

Under Entwistle no-one with a comms remit sat on the broadcaster’s executive board, while then-comms director Paul Mylrea was removed from the management board and saw his role shifted to public affairs.

The Pollard Inquiry transcripts – due to be published on Friday – are likely to shed further light on the gulf between comms and the board, which silenced the voices of senior communicators when key responses to the rapidly unfolding Savile saga were being formulated.

If Entwistle oversaw a downgrading of the BBC’s comms, Hall is sending a clear message that he intends to build it back up.

Purnell himself will sit on the executive board and his role spans a range of divisions, designed to bring together the sometimes disparate silos that Entwistle identified, but was unable to transform.

Purnell’s senior role also points to an organisation with renewed determination to fight its corner. 

His Labour background has predictably provoked mutterings about partisanship, but most talk positively of Purnell’s experience and his political leanings are unlikely to create lasting waves as long as BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten rides out the current storm.

More importantly, Purnell’s political experience will be a vital asset in the next great challenge facing the broadcaster – the BBC’s Royal Charter renewal negotiation in 2016.

The organisation will need a concerted effort to bring its vision to a vast range of stakeholders and ensure it has friends where it needs them ahead of the charter process – comms must play a central role in this effort.

The BBC is a unique organisation, but the basic rules of reputation still apply. Those organisations that do not place the utmost importance on reputation management can quickly find it comes back to bite them.

The broadcaster is emerging from a turbulent period where its reputation has been battered – Hall certainly appears convinced that bringing comms back to the top table is a vital pathway to fixing the damage.

alec.mattinson@haymarket.com

Read more insight into the latest BBC Comms shake-up

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