Joy Johnson’s newspaper habits are revealing. On Saturdays, when
most of us relax with feature stories, travel pieces or in-depth
analysis, Johnson attends to her thirst for the latest in the soap
operas. Reading the ’what happens next week’ column ruins the fun for
most of us. Not Johnson. The new strategic communications director at
GPC, and avid EastEnders and Corrie fan, doesn’t like surprises.
The BBC and ITN veteran, a former PR chief at the Labour Party and
university lecturer in communications, last week joined the board at
GPC’s plush, new Millbank offices. Lifelong Labour party member Johnson
blanches at suggestions she may be a control freak. She does, however,
ascribe her success in television news - she was the BBC’s political
news editor for two party conference seasons - to an obsessive attention
Retaining control is something for which her new clients - including
Marks and Spencer, PowerGen and Glaxo Wellcome - may come to thank
The main method she seems to employ for this is what she calls (while
cringing at the hackneyed phrase) ’news-driven story-led campaigns’. At
first sight, this approach seems tactical, rather than strategic, but
Johnson rejects this analysis. ’News campaigns look short-term and
tactical but the journalist has to forward plan and anticipate how the
story can be carried on the next day, the next week or the next year,’
Johnson is held in high regard among journalists. Nick Jones, the dogged
BBC political correspondent with whom she worked on the party conference
season in 1994, pays tribute to her ability to spot the important line
in a mass of information - to ’think like a journalist’. There is little
doubt this will benefit GPC.
There is a slight tone of regret in Jones’ voice, that Johnson ’jumped
the fence’ to PR. ’I do not judge anyone who crosses the line, but they
take with them a responsibility to communicate accurately,’ Jones
It might be pointed out, of course, that PROs who don’t come from
journalism also share this responsibility and there is no reason to
doubt Johnson is equal to it. ’Creating news for clients has to be done
truthfully; it is short-termist to tell false stories, and anyway
journalists would spot it,’ she says.
Johnson would surely have spotted it. Her former boss at ITN where she
spent the first 11 years of her career, Sue Tinson, vouches for her as
someone able to spot the telling detail and fit it into a plan, to adapt
to and make the most of rapidly changing circumstances.
The move to PR came six years ago, when Johnson left the BBC for the
Labour Party, becoming media and campaigns director. While working for
the party, she implemented a daily and weekly briefing system to
mobilise activists and widen Labour’s objectives. Johnson reshaped
campaign HQ to reflect a national and regional media relations scheme.
She went on to work briefly for GPC rival APCO, to lecture on PR at
Westminster University and to examine PR students at the University of
Stirling. She has written columns for the New Statesman and trained a
raft of public sector bodies in effective communications.
Johnson has yet to work in senior management for a large profit and
loss-driven corporation. ’When I have done this I will have covered all
the bases in communications,’ she says, revealing what apparently led
her to accept GPC’s advances. For the blue-chip public affairs operation
she joins it is vital her appointment is seen as the next step in its
conversion to an integrated PR and public affairs agency.
For Johnson, the memories of covering the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the
Lockerbie bombing, and Westminster over many years seem to have had an
effect. The unpredictable reporter’s life has left her requiring
While she talks about using her news experience to provide clients with
some certainty of what’s likely to happen, one suspects she is rather
enjoying not being called out on a job in the middle of the night.
For now, she must get to know Omnicom subsidiary GPC inside out. Beyond
that, she must put her knack of being ahead of events to good use for
clients. A former Scottish TV colleague, Douglas MacDougal, says ’she
always seems to know what’s around the next corner’. Johnson now hopes
to build strategic communications into every client’s programme, to
usefully predict media trends.
Out of hours, Johnson, with her partner and son, enjoys hill-walking in
Cumbria and going to the cinema. Her cinematic habits are also
revealing. In an apt touch, the last film she saw, The Talented Mr
Ripley, was based on a book she’d read: ’I knew what was going to happen
throughout,’ she says, ’no surprises that way.’
ITN field producer
BBC political news organiser
Media and campaigns director, Labour Party
Director of strategic communication, GPC