Paul Brown has overseen the all-important ‘news grid’ since he was recruited to Downing Street by former comms chief Alastair Campbell in 1998.
PRWeek has learned that Brown is preparing to retire at the end of March and that Robin Gordon-Farleigh, who performs a similar role at the Department of Health, is being lined up to take over as his replacement.
For over a decade, Brown has reported directly to the Prime Minister on plans for forthcoming announcements. He was awarded the OBE by Tony Blair in 2007.
Downing Street sources suggested that Brown’s imminent departure would send shockwaves through Whitehall. ‘It’s the end of an era,’ said one insider.
Another source commented: ‘Forget the AV referendum – losing Paul is by far the biggest threat to the coalition’s survival this year.’
As Number 10’s head of news planning, Brown is the keeper of the grid – the diary that lists Government events. The senior civil servant chairs a weekly Wednesday meeting with Whitehall comms directors in which Government announcements are scheduled.
As well as helping to gain maximum publicity for positive stories, Brown's role entails ensuring that potentially damaging announcements emerge on busy days and so receive minimal publicity.
According to insiders, Brown has been known to reprimand press officers who deviate from the strict timetable. ‘He is effectively able to order departments to change their plans; even secretaries of state require his approval before making controversial announcements or speeches,’ said one well-placed source.
Alastair Campbell told PRWeek that Brown had been a key influence on government comms since the early days of Tony Blair’s premiership.
He said: ‘I hired Paul Brown when the Strategic Communications Unit was established in Downing St in 1998. I asked him to set up and run the grid system which has since been copied by many other governments and organisations in politics, campaigns and business. Before, announcements from departments tended to spill out in an uncoordinated and unstrategic way and Paul helped bring both co-ordination and strategy to government.
‘He stayed in the same role through most of the Blair era, and all of the Brown era, because none of us could imagine anyone doing it better. He has a very calm manner, was a team player able to build relationships across government, and despite his unassuming appearance was always able to command the attention and respect of Prime Ministers, ministers and anyone else.
‘The systems he put in place, coupled with his attention to detail and sound judgment meant the centre knew what was happening across Government. And that meant better Government.’
Portland partner Steve Morris, another former Downing Street colleague, said Brown would be missed: ‘Paul has become the lynchpin of the Government’s strategic comms. He probably has more influence on comms than any other civil servant. His departure will leave a huge gap.’