Guto Harri: journalistic pedigree is paramount for Downing Street comms chief

Strategic comms advisor Guto Harri, who was director of communications at No. 10 from February until September this year, discusses the skills required for the top comms role in government – and why newcomer Amber de Botton’s CV ‘affords credibility and demands respect’.

It’s hard to think that the top comms job in No. 10 was fairly recently in the hands of a junior hack whose career highlight was to dress up as a chicken.

“DOC” is a big, hard, hairy role and it’s reassuring to see a consummate professional take over with the intellect, network and experience to match the challenge. You are in the room for most of the important discussions. You attend Cabinet, witness reshuffles, listen in on calls with world leaders and join the boss on critical visits.

You are one of the first people the Prime Minister will talk to every morning, and one of the last at night. You set the tone of government, as well as signalling its direction, and you have to hold your own with top civil servants, Cabinet ministers and the most powerful journalists in the country.

A journalistic pedigree is paramount. Editors are almost universally dismissive of what they routinely call “PR types”. Amber’s CV affords credibility and demands respect. It says: “I’m brave, decisive, disciplined and I meet deadlines.” Few comms roles demand such swift, instinctive, reactions. Hardly any are as relentless or as ruthlessly scrutinised. And Downing Street requires engagement with more media across a greater range of issues than most companies will handle in months.

I’m personally pleased to see a broadcaster taking over an operation that’s been far too focused on twice-daily briefings to a small cartel of lobby-based journalists. Two spoon-feeding sessions a day is at least one too many.

Newspapers loom large in our politics and the shrewd, tough and principled people who edit them demand and deserve proper attention. But Amber also has a chance to tilt the operation more decisively toward the mass audiences tuning into digital, TV and radio platforms, trying to make sense of the mad turmoil in our public life and work out where it leaves them.

She’ll know how to show not tell, how to make complex but important issues resonate, how to join the dots between today’s announcements and the tangible impacts on real lives down the line.

Government has tended to be over-formulaic on that front, allocating a small cast of spokesmen to a predictable round of interviews that’s over by 9am.

The World at One is more analytical than Today and Jeremy Vine has a bigger audience than both. Hit the sweet spot on LBC and you’ll reach 20m people across the Global portfolio. Most people listening have a vote. And they’ll all have a view.

Skilled staff at No. 10 have become very polished at organising strong visits with visual backdrops for television “clips”, but few appreciate the range of voices and sequences needed to fill a package or programme. An edit suite in the hour before broadcast can be a lonely and terrifying place if the raw material isn’t good. Amber will know exactly what I mean and every broadcaster in SW1 should benefit.

The biggest challenges will be breaking free of the loud noise generated elsewhere, setting not following the agenda, and seeing beyond tomorrow, next week and next month.

The verdict that matters to the government is delivered on voting day. The day-to-day impressions have to add up to a coherent story and positive emotion by then or a mountain of heroic effort won’t add up to a hill of beans.

It won’t be easy. She’ll know that. But I wish her well.

Guto Harri is a strategic comms advisor


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