Exclusive: Government comms chief quits post amid bullying row

Kirsty Buchanan has left her job as director of comms at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) after less than a year amid allegations of bullying, PRWeek can reveal.

Kirsty Buchanan, former director of communications at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Kirsty Buchanan, former director of communications at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

PRWeek understands that Buchanan, who took up the role last April and was a senior civil servant on an annual salary of at least £90,000, left the department recently.

It is not known who complained about her behaviour, and the specific nature of the claims has not been disclosed.

Buchanan, a former political editor at the Sunday Express, was suspended after an investigation into allegations of bullying was conducted during last year’s general election.

The allegations were made just weeks after Buchanan, a special adviser to Theresa May between August 2017 and April 2019, was awarded an OBE for political and public service in the former prime minister’s resignation honours.

Bullying culture

Almost one in 10 (eight per cent) of MHCLG staff claim to have suffered bullying or harassment at work in the past year, according to the latest Civil Service survey. 

Only a third (33 per cent) of victims reported the abuse they had suffered and, of those, less than one in five (18 per cent) felt the issue had been resolved.

Ticking the right boxes

When she had applied for the director of comms job last year, Buchanan was deemed to have met prerequisites such as having “an inclusive and collaborative leadership style” and “highly developed interpersonal and influencing skills”. 

A selection panel including Alex Aiken, director of Government Communication, appointed her to the role last March.

Commenting on the appointment at the time, Aiken said: “Senior leaders have a critical role in inspiring great performance, providing visible leadership and direction, and nurturing talent and creativity.”

Buchanan had been responsible for the MHCLG’s campaigns, public and media relations, digital channels, stakeholder engagement and corporate communications, and was in charge of a team of about 50 people. 

She was a senior member of the Whitehall directors of communication group, yet was a relative newcomer to the Civil Service, having spent most of her career as a newspaper journalist.

From local papers to Downing Street

Educated at Watford Grammar School for Girls, Buchanan went to Kingston University.

After graduating in 1991, she embarked on a career in regional and national newspapers and rose to become political editor at the Sunday Express in 2009. 

She left journalism in 2014 and took a job as deputy comms director at the Department for Communities and Local Government. 

Little more than a year later, Buchanan left to become head of comms at West Sussex County Council.

During her time there she was embroiled in a dispute with the Argus newspaper over the media handling of the memorial service for victims of the Shoreham Airshow disaster, with local newspapers banned from attending. Buchanan failed in an attempt to get IPSO to censure the newspaper over its coverage of the controversy.

She went on to work as a special adviser to Liz Truss during the Conservative MP’s brief stint as justice secretary, before moving to 10 Downing Street in August 2017 as head of political press. 

Interim DoC

Priya Brahmbhatt-Patel, former deputy director of strategic engagement at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has been the interim director of comms at MHCLG since January. 

The job has yet to be advertised, which means a permanent replacement for Buchanan could be some way off.

A MHCLG spokesperson told PRWeek: “We do not comment on staffing issues.”

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