Many PROs go through their entire careers without having to deal
with a national crisis.
The newly appointed head of media and public affairs for the BBC World
Service had to deal with one such event as a PR novice.
Mike Gardner's first PR job was as a press officer with London
Underground in 1986. The following year the Kings Cross fire claimed 31
lives, causing a drastic shift in the focus of his PR career: 'It took
us into a new and very political world,' he says solemnly.
'The pace of life there became unbelievable for a year and I got six to
ten years of PR experience in that time.'
Moving to the BBC in 1989 he initially promoted the Corporation's
children's' religious and sporting output.
While the subject matter was very different to his previous role, it
allowed for one unusual claim to fame while managing press for Blue
'I saw that we had made a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cave and said to
the editor (Lewis Bronze) that the big Christmas toy was going to be
As no-one could get their hands on a Tracy Island I suggested we adapt
the design to make an island on the show,' he says.
'We did so and following the broadcast received 100,000 requests for
factsheets in three days. We couldn't cope with the success - all the
tabloids ran a spread on how to make the island. Lewis told me -
jokingly perhaps - that Blue Peter had never had such a high profile,'
His media credentials are certainly solid enough. Having graduated from
Central London Polytechnic with a degree in media studies (former
Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson was among his classmates), he
started his career as a writer with now defunct music magazine Record
Mirror in 1979.
Bob Dulson, the chief PRO at the BBC who appointed Gardner, says: 'We
brought him in for crisis management, then over the years he became a
seriously good corporate communicator. He's a rare breed in this
industry as he is disarmingly modest and charming.'
Approaching his 13th year with the BBC, he is impressively robust in his
belief in the Bush House-based station for which he now heads publicity:
'There remains a myth that the World Service is an expat service - it's
not: 153 million people hear it, only 42 million of whom listen in
'People trust the World Service. In Afghanistan we broadcast in Persian
and Pashto. Since the Taliban banned TV and there are no credible
national newspapers, radio is key to communications.'
An un-scientific survey for the Corporation - market research in
Afghanistan being, of course, problematic - reveals that 72 per cent of
Pashto speakers and 62 per cent of Persian speakers listen to the
station. Part of the network's comms strategy is to play up the good
work that it achieves in such territories.
Gardner supports this by citing the World Service's broadcast of
information on the free market in the Soviet Union at the tail-end of
Communist rule, and current output in Afghanistan including educational
material for girls, who are excluded from schools.
Advances in digital radio mean the service is readily available in the
UK: 'It's important for ethnic communities to get news from an
international agenda, and because we broadcast our different language
output on digital satellite in the UK, they can get it.'
While communicating to the British public is important, so too is
communicating to the British press. The BBC has provided digital radio
facilities to news outlets that are unable to receive the station to
ensure that they are aware of what the World Service offers: 'We have to
remind journalists that we get scoops. In a 24-hour period our Pashto
service interrogated Tony Blair, Mullah Omar, and Dick Cheney. We're
trusted as a news platform to spark stories.'
Gardner is also responsible for lobbying on the World Service's behalf,
crucial with the next round of funding negotiations with the Foreign
Office imminent: 'It's important that we keep the Government informed of
what we are doing and we can achieve that by ensuring the service
reaches as many people in Britain as possible.'
Naturally, despite its reliance on government funding, the World Service
strives to avoid being seen as a state mouthpiece: 'The BBC's
independence is its most important value. Once that credibility goes it
is essentially dead.'
When Gardner joined the BBC there were virtually no media
correspondents, compared to the proliferation today: 'These days the
World Service receives 2,000 press calls a week, rising to as many as
200 per hour in times of crisis.
But he remains undaunted by the task facing him: 'It's a doddle, really
- you just have to tell the truth.'
1979: Writer, Record Mirror
1986: Press officer, London Underground
1997: Media relations manager (corporate), BBC
2001: Head of press and PR, BBC World Service