Helm, who was appointed in 2017, said he will step down in June and take time off over the summer to be with his three children, while considering his next move.
In a social media post, Helm said he had originally planned to leave the police service last year but had agreed to stay on during the pandemic.
Helm also spoke of the personal tragedy he and his family had faced.
He said: “As friends and colleagues are aware, the last couple of years have been very challenging on the domestic front, with the loss of my wonderful wife, Charlotte, from breast cancer. I am now aiming to take some time out with our three children and then to look ahead.”
Highlights and innovation
Asked for the highlights of his time with the country’s largest police force, Helm told PRWeek he was proud of a campaign launched in 2018 celebrating a century of women in the Met, and the part it had played in its current recruitment drive.
He added: “Leading the communications during the pandemic has been a unique challenge for London’s biggest single employer, giving police officers the information and support they need to keep the public, and themselves, safe.”
Under his leadership, Helm modernised the comms team’s approach to boost engagement and integrate digital, media relations, campaigns, and internal comms for the Met's 50,000 employees.
He said: “We have really transformed our digital content to engage the public. Comms staff have worked in a more integrated way and learnt new skills in the past year, which they now deploy every day. The result is far better content across our channels, and increased engagement.”
He added: “We are planning better and working more as one operation and our content has developed at pace. We need to keep on being proactive wherever possible, telling the stories of officers who do such brave work to keep people safe each day.”
Knife crime campaign
Among the biggest challenges he had faced, Helm said violent crime was the Met’s main priority.
The force, along with the charity Crimstoppers, launched the ‘Hard Calls Save Lives’ campaign last week, which encourages anyone with information about knife crime to contact them.
He said: “It features five incredibly brave women who have all lost sons to knife crime. It is hard-hitting, insight-led, and designed to help keep people safe.”
Reputation of the Met
Helm said that running the comms operation during the pandemic had brought with it “unprecedented challenges for the public sector” as the Met supported health professionals and the government to keep people safe.
The Met also faces continuing scrutiny over the emerging use of facial-recognition technology as well as policing of ethnic minority communities in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Commenting on whether the reputation of the service was better or worse at the end of his tenure, Helm said: “We know that public support for policing remains strong, but the Met will always face scrutiny and it works hard every day to keep on strengthening public confidence.”
Next steps for Helm
Helm has held several high-profile roles in both the public and private sectors during his comms career, and he has featured in PRWeek's top 10 of the most senior people in public sector comms since taking the job at the Met.
He is a former director of comms for the Department for International Development, now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and had a senior job at the Central Office of Information, a forerunner of the Government Communication Service.
Helm has also held senior agency roles, including as a partner in Portland’s international team, and was a consultant at Blue Rubicon, now Teneo, where he specialised in energy and utilities.
But he started his working life as a journalist, as a reporter on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, and worked in senior positions for the BBC for more than a decade, including as its Dublin correspondent during the Northern Ireland peace process.
Commenting on what he would do after a period of reflection this summer, Helm hinted that he was not finished with journalism.
He said: “I’ll speak to people I trust in organisations I admire. I’ve worked in public and private sector communications at senior levels, and in journalism, so I’ve been fortunate to see a wide range of comms challenges in different contexts. I miss writing and broadcasting, so we shall see.
“I’m going to have a break in the summer for the family reasons I have mentioned, and have a real think about what I do next, and what I find stimulating and exciting.”
The hunt for a successor
Recruitment for Helm’s successor will begin in June and an interim director of comms will be appointed when he leaves; with Ruth Shulver, currently the Met’s deputy director of comms, among the likely contenders.
Helm said he was grateful to the “dedicated public servants” who had supported him during his time at the Met.
His boss, Robin Wilkinson, chief of corporate services, paid tribute to Helm’s achievements.
He said: “James has done an excellent job in his time at the Met, and I’m grateful to him for what he has delivered and the improvements he has brought.”
Wilkinson set out the scope of the “challenging but rewarding” job for Helm’s successor: “The sheer breadth of the job makes it an unusual – even unique – comms role, but also a fascinating and worthwhile one.”
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