BBC comms unit struggles for voice during crisis

As the BBC reels from the resignation of director-general George Entwistle, sources have suggested that the handling of the crisis has been impeded by the comms unit's struggle to gain a voice among senior management.

Resigned: George Entwistle has quit as the BBC’s director-general (Credit: The BBC/Guy Levy)
Resigned: George Entwistle has quit as the BBC’s director-general (Credit: The BBC/Guy Levy)

Entwistle resigned after a Newsnight report on 2 November led to former Conservative treasurer Lord McAlpine being wrongly accused of child abuse in North Wales during the 1980s. This came after the revelations about Jimmy Savile emerged last month.

A BBC source told PRWeek that the comms unit was given a back seat role during the Savile crisis, while Entwistle placed his focus on procedures and handling lawyers.

Director of comms Paul Mylrea was one of a number of senior executives to be removed from the BBC’s management board when Entwistle took charge  in September.

A former senior BBC comms man, who continues to have close links to the team, suggested the organisation tended to go into a ‘bunker mentality’ at a time of crisis, with major decisions being made ‘in small groups’.

He said: ‘What has been symptomatic of the BBC is a disproportionate amount of responsibility being placed in a few hands, and this is true within the comms team.’

The comms unit has also been held back by necessary efforts to avoid a conflict of interest during internal investigations such as that carried out by Panorama on Newsnight.

Entwistle was unaware of a key story in The Guardian during his ill-fated interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday.

He also appeared to be in the dark about Newsnight’s mistake for some time. Some reports have suggested this was due to a falling out with Mylrea. But Mylrea denied falling out with Entwistle when approached by PRWeek.

Mylrea added: ‘As a comms professional, I’m not going to discuss the executives I work with but if people want to criticise me, I’m big enough to take that. A comms director is always at the heart of a media storm and it is no different in this case.’ He also pointed out that the issue had been one of the ‘toughest’ he has handled, including the 7/7 bombings in 2005, while he was at Transport for London.

A core PR team of ten people has been handling a level of scrutiny that has seen national newspapers individually emailing between 30 and 40 questions per day.

How I see it

Sally Osman, director, corporate comms, Sony Europe; former BBC director of comms

I worked hand-in-glove with [acting director-general] Tim Davie and he is a very wise head. He believes in the values of the BBC completely and is a great manager. He understands comms in its broadest sense and is a talented leader in this interim period.

Ben Burton, associate director, corporate, Weber Shandwick

BBC journalists are embarrassed about what’s happening and are fed up. They feel everyone is being tarred with the same brush because of a few mistakes by senior people. The press operation is very capable but needs to be given early sight of everything to get ahead of the story. 

Key figures

£154k Annual salary of Paul Mylrea, BBC director of comms*

£450k Pay-off agreed to be given to Entwistle upon his resignation*

86% PRCA members who said BBC’s Newsnight should not be cancelled**

2,608 Tweets by UK journalists/bloggers about the BBC last weekend***

*The Telegraph; **PRCA ***Lissted

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