Jon Steel - Ready for the switch

Jon Steel is relishing the challenge of informing the nation about the changeover from analogue to digital TV. Cathy Wallace reports.

Jon Steel (Photo: Tom Campbell)
Jon Steel (Photo: Tom Campbell)

On his second day as head of media and corporate affairs at Digital UK, the body responsible for the national switch from analogue to digital TV, Jon Steel picked up a copy of Metro.

'Switch to digital TV will be a disaster', screamed the headline. 'I thought, oh my god, what have I let myself in for here,' laughs Steel. 'I said to my chief executive, "I know my job is to get you in the papers - but I didn't mean like that".'

It is actually hard to imagine Steel being fazed by the headline. In fact it is hard to imagine Steel being fazed by anything. Described by former boss Andrew Whyte, now head of media at Arts Council England, as 'a PR person with low blood pressure', Steel exudes quiet confidence and the air of being able to take negative news on the chin.

'Switchover is a high-profile public project that has the potential to generate some really scary headlines,' he says. 'But the debate has moved on now. No-one is saying switchover is a bad idea any more.'

Despite the shift in attitude, Steel's challenge remains monumental. By 2012, the analogue system in every region in the UK will have been switched off and replaced by digital TV. The upside is that everyone will get free digital channels such as BBC3, BBC4 and ITV3 - channels which, as Steel points out, everyone already pays for either through the licence fee or through products advertised on commercial channels.

The downside, though, is anyone who is unprepared will be left without TV. Over the next five years Steel and his team will communicate with the public, landlords, housing associations and countless others to make sure everyone is ready.

The challenge does not stop here. As well as making sure people are given the information they need without being overloaded or fatigued, there are ongoing negotiations with other European countries, which interact with some UK TV signals, to co-ordinate the best time to switch areas around the South Coast.

'The interesting thing about this job is the sheer range of issues,' says Steel. 'There are international issues, technology issues, planning issues.' He pauses to pull out a thick document full of Excel spreadsheets, each detailing the exact communications plan for every single region in the UK. 'This is the press and PR plan for the next five years,' he says. 'This project won't fail through lack of planning. Over the course of the project there are some 5,000 milestones that have to happen.'

One of those milestones was a pilot switchover in Whitehaven, Cumbria, that took place in 2007. Steel says the project went very well, but concedes 'it won't all go as smoothly as Whitehaven'. The first big test starts next month with the switchover in the Scottish Borders.

Before joining Digital UK, Steel spent two years working with Whyte in speechwriting, a different beast from frontline PR, and previously he was head of publicity for BBC News.

During his time in the corporation Steel managed news stories of international significance, from the death of Princess Diana to September 11.

'What I learned at the BBC is that the moment there's a major event in the world the BBC's coverage becomes part of the story,' he says. 'For example, a newsreader wearing the wrong tie, in this case Peter Sissons with the Queen Mother. Our competitors would not miss an opportunity to point out shortcomings in our coverage.'

Possibly one of the most famous examples of BBC coverage becoming part of the story was when John Simpson claimed to have 'liberated' Kabul. When asked about the gaffe, Steel smiles a little uncomfortably. 'I was lucky enough to get to know John a bit and he's a first-rate correspondent and a thoroughly nice bloke,' he says diplomatically. 'The liberation of Kabul is one of those bits of journalistic folklore that people occasionally have a laugh about.'

After seven years in the BBC newsroom, Steel moved into speechwriting, which he describes as 'an interesting move and a thoroughly enjoyable change of direction'. But he concedes: 'It was something I never saw myself doing long-term. After a while I started to miss the cut and thrust of the daily media contact I had been so used to. Which brings me back to this job. It was an opportunity to build a media operation from scratch, which I had never done.'

Steel speaks with such fondness about the BBC that it might not be a surprise if he made a return to the corporation once Digital UK is wound up after switchover has been completed. But when asked about plans for the future, he says: 'I have no idea. I'm just happy doing what I am doing now.'

 

JON STEEL'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Becoming the head of press and PR for BBC News. It was an extremely challenging but hugely enjoyable job - no two days were ever the same.

- What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder in PR?

Read, watch and listen to as much as you can every day. Don't just read the cuttings about your business. Observe how the media are changing and the opportunities that presents. Constantly work at developing your contacts book.

- Who was your most notable mentor or influence?

Lee Woodward, who was my news editor when I was a reporter at Kent Today. She taught me how to write a good introduction and was a constant source of wise counsel. And I'm not just saying that because she's now my wife.

- What do you look for in new recruits?

The ability to write clearly and concisely.

 

CV

2005: Head of media and corporate affairs, Digital UK

2002: Commissioning editor and speechwriter to director general, BBCCorporate Communications

1998: Head of publicity, BBC News and Current Affairs

1995: Senior publicist, BBC News and Current Affairs

1992: Press officer, Kent Police

1987: Journalist, Kentish Times Group and Kent Today

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