Newsmaker: a portrait of BBC director of communications John Shield

The Beeb's new comms director is well placed to revive the broadcaster, John Owens says.

John Shield: Joining the BBC's new comms director
John Shield: Joining the BBC's new comms director

John Shield will walk straight into a furore over massive payoffs to former staff when he takes over next month. Not that it will faze him.

He is not shy when it comes to doing battle and he has handled some pretty tough gigs.

As comms director at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), he has been intimately involved with the controversy surrounding Iain Duncan Smith's radical welfare reforms, not least the department's overt success in selling in stories to the tabloids based on some highly spun statistics.

A frank and wide-ranging comms review of government departments was effusive in its praise of the PR set-up at the DWP and stated that it was seen by ministers as "integral".

Unafraid of proposing and defending wholesale change, Shield is close to the reform agenda driven by government comms tsar Alex Aiken, who describes him as an "effective strategist and inspiring leader".

That skill set is presumably what clinched the BBC role, with a salary thought to be around £150,000 a year. Shield's former head of news Stewart Todd, now head of news and media at the Financial Conduct Authority, praises his well-honed news sense and "the fact you knew he would back you up".

The BBC's 150-strong comms team - not to mention the corporation's rank and file employees - will certainly need his support.

Director-general Tony Hall has been on the front foot over the payments issue, and will be laying out his vision in a landmark speech due to be given as PRWeek went to press. But one well-placed source says that internal disquiet over the issue pointed to a "deeper feeling of separation between 'officer class' and those below". To what extent Shield can address this remains to be seen; internal comms was handed over to the HR department under former director-general George Entwistle.

"The BBC has had a bad few years," says James Frayne, former director of comms at the Department for Education. "While it would be ridiculous to suggest its main problems were comms problems, there is no doubt its comms should have been better. Too many senior executives delivered bad performances in the media, and their arguments were inconsistent and unclear."

But with new boss James Purnell, the former Labour minister who is now director of strategy and digital, giving comms a voice on the executive board once again, and Hall known to be reputation conscious, Shield should have scope to carve his own space. Being a former Beeb man himself will lend weight to his cause - Shield was director of comms for BBC journalism from 2008 to 2011, so he is not without insight or friends at his new workplace.

Ex-BBC director of public affairs and Shield's former boss, Paul Mylrea, now director of comms at the University of Cambridge, remarks: "He has the huge advantage of knowing the team because of his previous experience, but also having seen the BBC from the outside. His DWP work has prepared him for the crisis management part of the job in particular."

Shield will need his considerable expertise to create an annus mirabilis for Auntie from the ashes of last year.

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