Duncan Jeffery - The wedding planner

Westminster Abbey's head of comms tells Sara Luker how he handled the media frenzy surrounding the royal wedding.

Royal wedding: Jeffery says 'we still made it feel like a family affair'
Royal wedding: Jeffery says 'we still made it feel like a family affair'

From trying to rein in Ken Livingstone to keeping the Queen happy, Duncan Jeffery's PR career has been more illustrious and challenging than most.

One might forgive the 58-year-old head of comms at Westminster Abbey, for wanting a break after helping to manage arguably the biggest global media event of 2011 - the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

But as PRWeek meets Jeffery he is preparing for the visit of the world's most powerful man, Barack Obama, this week.

A parish church, this is not.

Jeffery and his team had very little warning that their professional lives were about to be thrown into chaos after Wills popped the question: 'We found out about the engagement on the TV and then the phones started ringing and they haven't really stopped since.'

The team had to then wait to see if Westminster Abbey or St Paul's would be the chosen location for Kate and Wills' big day. Jeffery was called by Clarence House only four hours before the chosen venue announcement. 'It was a challenge to keep up with the media demands,' he adds.

Around two billion people watched the royal wedding and Jeffery managed the live broadcast with BBC and ITN. 'More than 7,000 media accreditations were given out by us,' he says. 'Our main challenge was to accommodate the media as much as possible but still try to make the wedding feel like a family affair - the abbey's plasma screens were only turned on after Kate had walked down the aisle to not spoil the moment Will saw her.'

Claire Popplewell, senior producer, BBC Events, who worked closely with Jeffery during the royal wedding, says: 'He cares deeply about the institution he represents and he's got the kind of sense of humour that gets him and everyone around him through some quite difficult negotiations.'

Jeffery comes across as genuine, forthright and an all-round good guy. He claims he never promises what he cannot deliver and never lies - 'they come back to bite you'.

He started his career as a reporter on local newspapers, then the Press Association and Fleet Street came calling and Jeffery became deputy managing editor at The Sunday Times under Andrew Neil.

'It was a real insight into News International,' says Jeffery. 'It was exciting being at the heart of Fleet Street when it really was thriving. Being around so many huge characters like Rupert Murdoch taught me how to handle myself, that's for sure.'

After four years at The Sunday Times the adventurous Jeffery was bitten by the travel bug and decided to take a job on the Khaleej Times in Dubai. This was followed by roles at the European Council before the pull to return to the UK became too strong.

'My wife and I wanted our daughter to grow up in the UK so I started looking for jobs back home,' recalls Jeffery. 'The opportunities were all in PR and when I heard about the job to be chief press officer to Mayor of London I jumped at it.'

Jeffery believes in enjoying life and has striven to stick to this ethos wherever he has found himself. Some of his best memories involve late-night drinks at party conferences with Ken Livingstone: 'Ken was so much fun to be around. I didn't have to work hard to get him publicity.'

Life with Livingstone was not always a bed of roses. 'What I did have to work hard at was trying to install any kind of media strategy in him,' explains Jeffery. 'When we planned to put up travel fares we spent weeks formulating our PR strategy. Then Ken was asked to go on LBC talk radio. He was asked if fares were going up and he replied with "Yes, in the New Year". All that planning went out of the window.'

After five years at the Greater London Authority, Jeffery was itching for a new challenge. 'Coming to Westminster Abbey was like going from one English institution to another,' he jokes. He says its four-strong, 'small but perfectly formed' media team works across a huge variety of events and comms platforms, but always remains mindful of the abbey's core function: 'All our activity has to work around what the abbey is here for - a place of worship.

'There's a lot of managing expectations,' explains Jeffery. 'When Barack Obama visits we have to accommodate 180 media people from the US and 80 journalists - for only a 25 minute visit. But I love that this job brings up huge challenges like this.'

Attracting a younger audience and people that do not have the abbey on their radar is Jeffery's central challenge. 'The royal wedding has gone some way to helping open up the abbey to a new audience,' he explains. 'The challenge is to come up with innovative ways to keep interest high.'

Now all he needs is for Prince Harry to get a move on and do the decent thing.

2005: Head of comms, Westminster Abbey
2000: Chief press officer to Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Greater
London Authority
1998: Head of press and information, European Liberal, Democrat &
Reform group, European Parliament, Brussels & Strasbourg
1994: Executive editor, Khaleej Times, Dubai
1990: Deputy managing editor, The Sunday Times
1986: Editor, Southern Evening Echo
1979: Assistant editor, Eastern Daily Press
1978: European bureau chief, Press Association
1976: Westminster parliamentary reporter, Press Association
1972: Reporter, Great Yarmouth Mercury and Eastern Daily Press

Duncan Jeffery's turning points

What was your biggest career break?

It has to be moving to the Press Association at 85 Fleet Street in 1976.

I grew up listening to all my grandfather's stories about the Fleet Street print halls and national newspaper production - I felt I was going home.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Peter Roberts, a former editor of the Eastern Daily Press, taught me the twin values of integrity and compassion. He could tear shreds off you one moment and invite you out for a pint in the next breath. An extraordinary man.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Never be afraid to take risks and put your neck on the line. Be prepared to do the unexpected even if you have a lot of explaining to do afterwards.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

I like the people I work with to never be afraid to challenge an organisation's preconceived notions.

I like new recruits to be ambitious, push boundaries and not want to stand still.

Tell PRWeek about your career turning point

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