Crisis comms, senior hires and under pressure: The public sector year in review

2017 has seen the public sector - and its comms people - put under greater pressure than ever: with terrorism, cyber attacks and one of Britain's biggest peace-time disasters. It has also seen the launch of new initiatives and a host of senior appointments to some of the most demanding comms jobs in the country...


The Government Communications Service announced the firms on its PR roster agency framework, with Weber Shandwick, Portland and Freuds among the larger agencies making the cut. The GCS said its entire communications services framework, divided into 11 lots including PR, was worth more than £40m over the next four years.

Meanwhile, HMRC announced it was running an apprenticeship scheme funded by the National Cyber Security Programme, which would aim to recruit people, including those who are on the autism spectrum, to combat the rising tide of cyber attacks on Government systems. 


In early February, PRWeek’s story on the award of a £1m contract by an academy chain that had suffered some reputational disasters in recent years, was followed up by national and specialist educational media and led to questions being asked in Parliament.

And an analysis of figures from the Office for National Statistics found that the Ministry of Defence has enough comms people on its staff to fill the ranks of an infantry battalion, accounting for more than one in seven of the 3,400 comms posts across Government departments. HMRC employed the next highest number of comms operatives.


The findings of a CIPR ‘State of the Profession’ report made for grim reading, finding that public sector comms people are, on average, paid £7,000 less than their counterparts in other sectors and that a significant minority had also seen cuts to their annual budgets.

PRWeek also revealed its Powerbook ‘Top Ten public sector comms’ list. The list included, among others, Simon Wren, director of comms at the Home Office, Martin Fewell, director of comms at the Metropolitan Police and Arun Arora, director of comms at the Church of England; all of whom have since moved on.


A major report warned that Britain was among the countries losing ground in a propaganda battle with Russia, as the country sought to exercise soft power comms offensives including spreading fake news, at the expense of its rivals.

Meanwhile, NHS Digital announced it had appointed a trouble shooter as its new director of comms and, exiting, Arun Arora at the Church of England announced his departure to become a practicing vicar. 

All this against the backdrop of a snap General Election campaign, announced by Theresa May after Easter, and the resulting purdah restrictions on public sector comms professionals.


Nearly six weeks after the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge and Parliament, PRWeek was given unique access to the multiple strands of the Metropolitan Police comms operation, which took place in the immediate aftermath and the days following the incident.

Half way through May, the Wannacry ransomeware attack hit NHS computers, crippling systems in more than a third of Trusts and leading to the cancellation of around 7,000 patient appointments. Although the short-lived crisis exposed gaps in planning - particularly how to communicate without email - clinical staff and accompanying comms teams proved their resilience and adaptability.


The Electoral Commission, having successfully boosted voter registrations through some innovative partnerships with social media platforms, set about running an anti-fraud campaign ahead of the General Election.
Another terrorist attack, this time on London Bridge, put emergency services comms to the test once again.

The attack was shortly followed by the Grenfell Tower fire, one of Britain’s worst peace-time disasters, which claimed 71 lives. The tragedy continues to be a huge comms challenge for London Fire Brigade, Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Government as they deal with long-term ramifications of the blaze.


An exclusive survey for PRWeek in July revealed that the public was running out of patience with Kensington and Chelsea council’s handling of Grenfell in the wake of the resignation of council leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown (above), with a majority saying they favoured the Government sending in commissioners to run the local authority.

Transport for London’s BAME internship scheme, aimed at encouraging people from diverse backgrounds into a career in public sector comms, celebrated its tenth anniversary. The 24 alumni who have passed through its doors and then onto full time jobs in the Metropolitan Police, the NHS and TfL itself, is testament to its success.


The GCS launched a diversity strategy targeting second school children after figures revealed that BAME recruits occupy 12 per cent of comms roles. 
And then came the surprise announcement that the Metropolitan Police director of media and comms Martin Fewell had decided to step down from his role, after five years in which he helped transform the operation, to pursue his career in the private sector.

The Scottish Government chose August to announce which agencies had made it onto its PR roster, worth £8m, and which had not.


The Government placed delivering Brexit firmly at the centre of its annual communication plan,
 published at the start of the month, describing Britain’s future exit from the EU as "one of the biggest communication challenges in history", with almost every government department given a role to play.

There were also some senior-level arrivals and departures in September as John Booth was appointed as the Scottish Government’s new comms chief, tasked with delivering joined-up comms across Scotland.

Home Office director of comms, Simon Wren, decided to call time on a 20-year career as a senior government communicator, having worked for several other departments previously, including the MoD and the Department for Transport.


October saw the launch of some innovative campaigns, including an internal comms project to educate new MPs about government departments and a flagship campaign from the Department for Work and Pensions to persuade millions of people to think about their future selves and save for retirement.
There was also a review of half a century of drink-driving campaigns, which have helped cut deaths by 90 per cent.

Rachel Royal (above), appointed director of comms at NHS Digital earlier in the year, gave PRWeek a wide-ranging interview in which she discussed the summer cyber-attack on the NHS, the glass ceiling for women in senior comms positions and her own career choices. 


Senior comms hires in November included a new director of comms for the Home Office, in the form of former BBC news journalist Andy Tighe (above), who had held the acting director role since the departure of Simon Wren.

And the Church of England hired Tashi Lassalle, from the world of financial and professional services, as its new director of comms, with a mission to make the church more visible across social and digital channels.  

In police comms, Surrey Police hit back at the ASA after it banned one of its campaigns aimed at reducing unnecessary calls to the police, saying that evidence did not support the ruling. 

And a survey unveiled at the Association of Police Communicators (APComm) annual conference found that officers have a task on their hands when engaging with young people.


The Scottish Government announced its comms priorities for the year ahead, including a focus on getting the best Brexit deal for its citizens, and there were fears for job security as one NHS Trust announced it was outsourcing its entire comms operation.

Meanwhile, there were more senior hires as the year came to a close, with the appointment of former DfID comms chief James Helm as the new director of media and comms at the Metropolitan Police. Helm, who takes up the role early next year, is a senior partner at Portland. 

And the Cabinet Office appointed a Home Office veteran, Sharon Sawers, who has led on numerous award-winning campaigns, as its new director of comms; while the London Ambulance Service appointed a new director of strategy and comms.

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