Armed forces comms set for "radical" change as MoD leads rethink

The communications operations across Britain's armed forces are set for their "most radical change in 25 years" with the Ministry of Defence in the vanguard of efforts to innovate and centralise.

Stephen Jolly: MoD's director of defence communications
Stephen Jolly: MoD's director of defence communications

The Cabinet Office has kicked off a review of communications across the nine 'functions' of the nation's defences, including the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, which could lead to stronger oversight by the MoD.

The review is being overseen by executive director of government communications Alex Aiken, the MoD's director of defence communications Stephen Jolly and Kevin Murray, the former British Airways internal comms chief who is chairman of PR agency The Good Relations Group.

Jolly told PRWeek the review would be informed by a restructure of the MoD's comms team intended to improve its strategic and digital capabilities, which is expected to conclude in September. This restructure is outlined in more detail below.

He expressed hope the review would lead to the 120-strong MoD comms team, which already functions as a directorate, having greater control over wider armed forces communications, on which an estimated 500 people work.

Jolly said the review envisioned "huge change on a number of fronts" and was "probably the most radical change in 25 years", but was necessary to make sure the role and contribution of the armed forces is understood.

The process comes as the Government presses ahead with plans to reduce regular army troop numbers from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020 and prepares for the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

"We need to make sure our role and contribution is understood, in terms of the role that defence plays in the security, prosperity and success of the nation. Among other things, we create thousands of jobs."

The armed forces comms review will be presented to the Defence Board, which includes Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond and chief of defence staff General Sir Nicholas Houghton, this summer.

Jolly, who reports to the Defence Board, stressed it would make the final decisions on the review's recommendations but added the MoD changes would be a "beacon".

He added that a key ambition was for the MoD directorate to have stronger central power and stated he had "100 per cent backing" from the Defence Board for "major reform".

"It is about having a broader oversight body for all comms within defence, which it doesn't systematically do now," he said. "If we are moving towards a situation where you are aiming for a common narrative you can’t have people setting agendas independently from one another."

He admitted that change was difficult: "We have no illusion about that – and I will take into accounts people’s views but things have to change. This will not be an overnight process."

The Ministry of Defence's comms restructure

The MoD wants its comms team to have a greater capability in content creation and digital communication, according to its director of communications Stephen Jolly, who joined early last year.

Jolly said this would help the MoD make its messages on long-term issues clearer, referring to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the recruitment drive for Army reservists and the post-2015 general election Strategic Defence and Security Review.

"There are developments in defence of national and international significance and these need to be explained in a systematic, long-term way. Our job is to make our messages clearer. What we do superbly is news managing but where we’ve been less good is in the generation of content to create direct-to-audience communications and set long-term agendas on a proactive basis."

The MoD directorate’s changes, on which staff were updated in a letter last week, include:

  • A smaller news management operation, dropping from 25 to 18/19
  • The creation of an entirely new team, the biggest in the directorate, focusing on longer-term campaigning
  • A stronger focus on film and moving image and the development of content
  • The creation of a small but powerful strategy arm, which will seek to lead on comms strategy for the whole of the UK's defence forces
  • A group focusing on assessment and evaluation of communications
  • An investment of £500,000 in an extensive training programme and upgraded IT systems.

Jolly emphasised the changes were not due to cost-cutting but admitted: "I have given staff my commitment that we will provide as much training as feasible to support career aspirations and we will give them every opportunity to apply for a job. However, there may be a margin of people who do not find a post they want or can do."

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