The hair shirts are out at George Eykyn’s new employer. In November the ultimate chief of British Gas Sam Laidlaw decided to waive his bonus in response to the furore over rising energy bills.
Laidlaw, chief executive of Centrica, says industry leaders need to tackle the issue head on and energy companies need to be more transparent and explain how bills are made up.
Eykyn, whose past wardrobe has included a flak jacket as a BBC News war correspondent, is the man British Gas wants to step into the firing line as its new comms chief. It is prepared to wait two months for him to transfer from Whitehall, where he heads comms for the Department for Communities and Local Government, despite the departure of previous comms chief Paul Fincham in October.
While Eykyn waits in the wings, the winter months are likely to see energy companies in the stocks once again after inflation-busting price rises on the back of sizeable profits. One need look back only two months to remember the backlash against British Gas’ announcement that it would raise electricity prices by 10.4 per cent and gas prices by 8.4 per cent.
When the company held a Twitter Q&A with its customer service director Bert Pijls the same day, it faced a barrage of complaints from customers. The domestic energy market leader has since said it would reduce gas and electricity prices by an average of 3.2 per cent, equivalent to £41 from an annual dual-fuel bill, with an extra £12 rebate through the Government’s warm home discount scheme. Eykyn’s new boss, British Gas director of corporate affairs Christine McGourty, acknowledges the industry faces "big challenges" in "rebuilding trust in the sector". Eykyn’s decision to take the role was described by executive director of government comms Alex Aiken as "a gain for British Gas, but a loss for the Department for Communities and Local Government".
After five years as head of comms at the DCLG, Eykyn "is highly respected around Whitehall", says Aiken.
At the DCLG, Eykyn has been involved in everything from fighting battles regarding his boss Eric Pickles’ steep council spending cuts to leading comms on the Fire Kills safety campaign and work around diversity in communities. His role was not insulated from financial pressure, with government cuts that took effect at the end of 2011 reducing the department’s comms budget from £4m in 2010 to £2.7m, with staff numbers nearly halved to around 45. Eykyn explains that "planning and prioritising" were required in working with a smaller team. He paints his way of working as collegiate, pointing to his work with 15 senior staff in reshaping the team.
Those who think British Gas is a different kettle of fish should not overlook his previous experience in the private sector. Between the BBC and the Government, he spent four years as a senior consultant at global accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
With this experience of money men, he will doubtless be aware his performance will be judged in good part on whether Laidlaw has to get that hair shirt out again next winter.