Profile: Sian Jarvis, director general of communications, Department of Health

NHS comms head Sian Jarvis has been named PR Professional of the Year 2009, despite the furore caused by the swine flu crisis. Gemma O'Reilly meets her.

Sian Jarvis
Sian Jarvis

It is hard to imagine Sian Jarvis in leather trousers. The Department of Health's long-standing director general of comms was named PRWeek's PR Professional of the Year this week. She is glamorous but perfectly presented in pearls and a smart blouse in her Whitehall office for our interview, which took place before Tuesday's awards ceremony.

But ten years ago, when she started at the DH, fresh from her political correspondent role at GMTV, her former boss' advice was: 'Wear your leather trousers on the first day.' 'He was trying to tell me the civil service wasn't as stuffy as it seemed,' explains Jarvis.

More significantly, that same boss, GMTV's director of programming Peter McHugh, also told her she could have her old job back after three months if she did not like the PR role.

Instead, the 46-year-old continues to handle what is - arguably - the most challenging comms brief in Government. DH-related issues are almost permanently in the media crosshairs. It is a broad challenge that encompasses the NHS, social care and public health. Yet it is fairly clear that Jarvis, who is both guarded and fiercely intelligent in person, is ideally suited for the job.

'The NHS is dealing with 1.3 million patients every 36 hours, so everything we do in terms of scale is huge,' points out Jarvis. 'It also means if you treat a million patients every day, and there's a one in a million chance of something going wrong, that's a pretty awful story every day with which you need to deal.'

As well as a seven-year stint at GMTV, Jarvis spent three years at rival broadcasting giant the BBC. This perhaps explains why Jarvis is unwilling to criticise a media landscape that is often hostile. 'I don't think it's the media's job to support the NHS. It's their job to challenge and scrutinise it.' She admits some staff feel frustrated the media rarely print success stories, but she is pragmatic: 'It is difficult to sell in positive achievements. The media do a good job, given that good news isn't a story.'

The media agenda on health this year has been dominated by the swine flu crisis, which Jarvis has handled with increasing aplomb. She is keen to stress the DH has tried to be honest with the public: 'We decided at the beginning that we wanted to be open and that has sometimes brought difficulties.'

Those difficulties have been overcome in part because of Jarvis' experience as a TV reporter - which she believes gives her an edge when it comes to selling in a story. She recounts her GMTV editor, Martin Frizell, telling her if she could not summarise a story in a minute, she had no place being there: 'That was a brilliant lesson. It makes you go to the heart of something.'

'Sian is unique among civil servants in that she has hands-on experience of mass market TV, on which her department must be focused,' says Frizell. His only criticism is that she 'does not go out to lunch enough'.

Bell Pottinger Group chairman Kevin Murray points to Jarvis' flair for strategic thinking: ' Coming out of TV, she is a fast thinker. She is tough but a good listener.'

Those skills are on display when Jarvis analyses the recent outpouring of support for the NHS following its criticism in the US: 'It was interesting that the moment commentators in the US started to misrepresent the record of the NHS, everybody in the UK wanted to defend it. Everybody holds the values of the NHS dear. But it's the performance of the NHS that everyone questions.'

Jarvis knows this terrain well. She has been in the same job for a decade now, yet still claims to love change. This has not, though, led to any of the roles for which she has been hotly tipped - most notably, the permanent secretary for government comms role in the Cabinet Office, which went to her former colleague Matt Tee last year.

Instead, it appears that there is enough steady flux at the DH to keep Jarvis occupied: 'I like the challenge of seeing things in a different way, which is what you have when a new minister arrives.' This scenario was brought home to Jarvis earlier this year when Andy Burnham replaced Alan Johnson as Heath Secretary in June, shortly after the swine flu epidemic emerged.

Fortunately, Jarvis takes her role communicating 'matters of life and death' extremely seriously. She was prompted to take the job after deciding she wanted to give something back to society: 'I got fed up in TV of criticising things. I began to get a sense that I wanted to take responsibility to improve things.'

Undoubtedly, her approach has paid off. There is compelling testimony from chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, with whom she has worked since the swine flu pandemic started. 'She is without doubt one of the leading health communicators of her generation,' he says.

 

Sian Jarvis' turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

Being given a lobby pass by GMTV and becoming a political correspondent. Being one of only four women in the lobby at the time, this was an incredible opportunity to see UK and world leaders at close quarters and to walk the corridors of power, often late at night given it was for breakfast TV.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

I don't think there's one person in particular. In the civil service you are working with the brightest and the best people. You can learn a great deal from politicians in terms of style and how they handle huge pressures. The chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson continues to impress me. He's a brilliant communicator.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Always listen before communicating and believe you have the power to change things. Know your stuff and be well briefed, because you never know when your chance will come.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Being bright with a positive attitude. You also need lots of energy, and it helps if you're interested in health.

 

CV

2009 Named PRWeek PR Professional of the Year

2001 Director general of communications, Department of Health

1999 Head of news, Department of Health

1992 News presenter and political correspondent, GMTV

1989 BBC trainee and presenter, BBC Look East

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