PROFILE: Worn out Harris returns to fire - Colleen Harris, director of communications, Commission for Racial Equality

In the middle of making a point about the Commission for Racial Equality's recently launched investigation into racism in the police force, Colleen Harris lets out a whoop as she spots a naked man moving across the top of a building across the street.

It is a moment of light relief in which Harris, a jovial woman of small stature, seems to take much delight. But she is soon back on-message, talking about the communications challenges facing an organisation she never thought would find itself in so much limelight.

This month, the CRE condemned the anti-Arab comments of talkshow presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk in the Sunday Express less than three weeks after the commission announced it was launching an investigation into police racism headed by Sir David Calvert-Smith QC, recently retired Director of Public Prosecutions.

Instigated by CRE chairman Trevor Phillips, the investigation is a response to last year's BBC sting, which uncovered some disturbing views on race from a number of officers and threw the spotlight on the organisation's race relations training.

Harris joined the commission in late November, filling the director of communications post left vacant by the departure of Trish Evans. Harris resigned her post as the Prince of Wales's press secretary last July, citing 'punishing' hours, and might have been expecting a less fraught environment at the CRE.

She confesses to feeling burnt out at handling the prince's press office team of five, which took 67,000 calls a year on the palace landlines alone.

'It took its toll physically,' says Harris. 'I think we all have to recognise that point in ourselves when we think: "I can't take another call on this or reply to this letter".'

But the CRE role has proved no less demanding thus far. 'I don't remember reading about the job in this way before I came,' she jokes.

At most points in her career, Harris, 48, has found herself working for a part of the establishment in crisis. After six years in junior PR roles at the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, Harris says she was inspired by a Government Information Service training speech given by former government communicator Romola Christopherson, who died last year (PRWeek, 24 October 2003), to try her hand at government comms roles.

These included working at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) during the Westland affair and the Thatcher government press office when Spycatcher, the autobiography of ex-MI5 agent Peter Wright, was banned.

All good training, Harris says, for her last and most controversial role as press secretary to Prince Charles, a man who has attracted a fair amount of bad publicity. Harris became his press secretary just two years after becoming the first black member of the royal household.

She is a lively character - prone, by her own admission, to 'wittering on', not a quality that springs to mind when considering the hard-bitten establishment PRO whipping the royal rat pack or Whitehall hacks into shape.

That said, the Prince of Wales's assistant press secretary, Kirsteen Clark, looks back fondly on the three years she spent working with Harris.

'She is a true professional with superb judgement and a real talent for getting on with people,' says Clark. 'Her personality and energy enthuses everyone in the team, and she is great fun to work for.'

Harris has made sacrifices in her career. She opted not to return to Downing Street after having her first child but then landed a job-share working for then transport minister Michael Portillo. 'Fed up' with a stint promoting careers in the Government Information Services to undergraduates, Harris secured the head of planning role at the Department of Transport and was then headhunted for the royal household.

As chairman of the Caribbean Board, a group set up by the Foreign Office to help Caribbean people in the UK, Harris has a personal connection to her current work. Her parents came from Guyana to London.

To relax, Harris says she would like to find the time to read the books she ends up listening to on the radio 'because you can chop the carrots while they are read to you'. But when it all gets too much, there is always the possibility of another moment of naked distraction from the street outside.


1987: Press officer, Downing Street

1990: Press officer, Department of Transport

1995: Head of press promotions, Department of Transport

1997: Head of media planning, Department of Transport Environment and

the Regions

1998: Deputy press secretary, then press secretary, Prince of Wales

2003: Director of Communications, Commission for Racial Equality

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