PROFILE: Brigadier Matthew Sykes, The Army - Army comms chief fit for PR challenges

The military man has moved on to a new operational front at the MoD

Brigadier Matthew Sykes, the director of corporate communications for the Army, could - to an outsider - be considered an unusual choice for the role. Before taking the job on seven months ago, he had spent more than 27 years in military service: the processes of planning and fighting battles will have been more familiar to him than those of planning communications strategies.

So, when he throws off his shirt and tie to don an army jacket and beret for the benefit of the PRWeek photographer, it comes as no surprise. Although he is now the Army's top PR professional, he still sees himself as very much a solider.

But because his role now involves anything the Army does, he has had to get used to dealing with a raft of non-military issues. The week he started his new job he was handling PR aspects of troops' participation in 'Operation Tay Bridge' - the Queen Mother's funeral.

The latest developing issue to deal with is the Fire Brigades Union strike.

Before the latest planned strike was called off earlier this week, 12,000 Army troops were providing emergency cover, a situation that led to chief of defence staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce last week warning troop morale was being undermined and their fighting strength weakened.

Sykes argues that the Army's efforts during the fire strike have meant 'very positive PR', for the organisation, reinforcing popular images of the Army first generated during the foot-and-mouth outbreak last year.

Despite his obvious affinity for the military, seven months into his first corporate comms position, he makes a point of stating: 'I feel this is the best job you can get in the MoD as a brigadier'.

The 14-strong directorate he heads sits alongside those of the Navy and RAF, one part of a defence-wide PR structure. On communications issues, Sykes reports to overall Ministry of Defence corp comms director-general Martin Howard.

His work is split between internal and external comms. Internally, target audiences comprise Army personnel in the UK and Germany (plus territories such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Sierra Leone), soldiers' families, civil servants who work in the Army and ex-servicemen. Externally, he says his team aims to 'provide expert knowledge on what the Army component of the operation is up to'.

But Sykes is most animated when talking of his spells in the field, indeed he admits that is where his heart belongs. When discussing what his duties will be during possible military action in Iraq, Sykes begins by saying his 'instinct as a soldier is to be with soldiers'.

Throughout his military career - which includes spells at NATO headquarters in Brussels and commanding a regiment in Northern Ireland, where, he stresses, community relations work was a significant aspect of his role- advances in communications technology have meant increased pressures on PROs.

Sykes points out that during the Falklands War 20 years ago, reporters had to send news back to Britain using the military's own systems because the Argentinians had possession of the telecoms facilities in Port Stanley.

By contrast, he says: 'I have heard, but I stress this is apocryphal, that during Kosovo journalists were getting pictures back to London of cruise missiles taking off from submarines before those missiles had actually landed.'

Although Sykes is a military man by training and experience, elements of his role involve the kind of duties a private sector corporate comms director would discharge. The Army's PR team has retained Rowland Communications for three years, to handle campaigns and corporate messaging work.

Rowland senior account director Marie Ennis says of Sykes: 'It's a tough job that needs a strong personality.

He has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve from communications and he is very open to ideas.'

Sykes admits some of his civilian friends 'tease me for being the Army's "spin doctor",' but, he adds: 'I don't mind - for the first time, I have a job that they understand'.

Proving the PR know-how he has picked up throughout his Army career, Sykes ensures the PRWeek photographer isn't able to sneak into the shot the maps of countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan that are positioned on the wall near his desk: 'I think you've got Iraq in that shot,' he says, changing his stance before adding: 'One thing I've learned in PR is to get the background right'.

HIGHLIGHTS

1994: Commanding officer, 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery

1997: Strategic policy chief, NATO European headquarters

2000: Chief co-ordinator of Joint Firepower, NATO rapid-reaction corps

2002: Director corp comms, The Army

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