Public Sector: Whyte vows to give Defra 'focus'

Whitehall Incoming comms director pledges 'clearer direction' for Defra when he takes over the post.

The incoming director of comms at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has promised to bring 'greater focus and direction' to the department.

Andrew Whyte joins Defra in June, from his role as executive director, advocacy and communications at Arts Council England. Whyte has also worked as deputy director of corporate affairs at News International and head of corporate and public relations at the BBC.

His appointment comes some weeks after Whitehall sources told PRWeek that the department seemed 'directionless' since Paddy Feeny abandoned plans to join as comms director (PRWeek, 13 February).

Instead, Feeny opted to head to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), formed last October, leaving Defra without a permanent comms chief.

Since last October the day-to-day running of the comms team has been handled by Defra director of strategy Jill Rutter. Whyte will oversee a comms team of more than 100 people.

Whyte said: 'The department has been through some changes. There is a real need for focus and direction and I hope I can bring that.'

He added that his primary concern would be to bring greater cohesion to the department following the formation of the DECC last year.

One Whitehall insider agreed Whyte would need to face the question of Defra's role now that the main environmental concern has been taken over by DECC.

'Something is still needed at Defra in terms of development of its narrative. It has lost something and I don't know what it is going to replace it with.'

Last month, Defra brought in former editor of the BBC Six O'Clock News Mark Popescu as head of news. Whyte said the two new appointments would provide a 'fresh start' for the department.

Former Defra director of comms Lucian Hudson said: 'Andrew's experience with passionate and tenacious stakeholders in the arts community will serve him well in his new environment. He'll soon discover that at Defra, "culture" is a nasty disease in a secure tub kept in the lab freezer.'

Another former Whitehall comms chief said that permanent secretary for government communications Matt Tee, and other senior figures in Whitehall, ' will think it's good that the Government is attracting talent from outside Whitehall'.

HOW I SEE IT - Adrian Long, Director of communications, The Environment Agency

I know Andrew from 25 years ago when we were both on the NUS national executive together and then at the BBC. Will he be man enough to handle the job, having come from the Arts Council? Well, I'm not convinced the Arts Council has been that fluffy. There has been lots of internal fighting. Some years ago there were controversial funding decisions that the Arts Council had to make, so he would have had to deal with that. He's a senior player. He's a very rounded comms and PR professional and he has a good nose for a story. He's politically savvy as well.

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