Profile: A companion for trouble - Leonie Austin, director of public affairs, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors

Sixteen years in government communications has had a profound effect on Leonie Austin. Constant battles and the attention of national media have coloured her path through various departments.

So how will she handle her new role as director of public affairs at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS)? Austin was introduced to the political communications hotbed early on, working as a journalist on the newspaper of the electricians union at a time when it was helping Rupert Murdoch move his papers to Wapping.

'We received a lot of stick from the rest of the unions,' says Austin.

Far from acting as a deterrent, however, the flak enticed her into the world of government comms. 'I could see how exciting working in politics could be,' she recalls.

From there, trouble and Austin were constant companions. Her move to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in February 1989 came just a month after Tory health minister Edwina Currie's comments about salmonella levels in eggs rocketed food safety to the top of the news agenda.

Then in October 1990 Austin joined the Department for Transport at a time of intense road protests. Such an environment provided not only the excitement she sought, but also the ideal training ground for delivering speedy and effective communications.

For 16 years Austin has been balancing the need to fight fires with ensuring the Government's position is clearly communicated, a responsibility that invariably requires her to defend the unpopular. She claims she is not politically active but is passionate about defending the democratic process.

'It is not my job to cast judgement on whether it is right or wrong,' Austin says. 'My view of communications in government is that it is part of the democratic process.

'I don't think I could work for an organisation I didn't believe in, but I think it's better to be agnostic,' she adds. 'You become a better communicator if you can see things from the other side. My view as a comms professional is that it is my job to present what my employer is doing in the best possible light - I don't think that's spin.'

Austin admits government comms has 'been tainted' by the media's obsession with spin, which she says is not 'party political' but born of an evolving media and political landscape.

She says one of the greatest skills she has developed is the use of all channels at her disposal. 'The media have a very valuable role to play, but they will always see things through their own prism,' she adds.

Her lively career has also taught Austin the need to find the most receptive media channel for her employers' messages. At the DfT, she found national media often had a fixed and critical stance on road issues, so attention was shifted to local media.

While shuffling from department to department, Austin has been exposed to just about every comms discipline there is. 'You don't get that (diversity) in any other organisation,' she says.

According to Luther Pendragon partner Mike Granatt - who spent 25 years in Whitehall, and who worked alongside Austin at the Cabinet Office - that 16 years in government comms 'means there isn't any form of trouble she won't have seen'.

He says Austin will have no trouble adjusting to a role in which she will be able to pick and choose when to make her voice heard. 'She is tough, clever and strategic,' says Granatt. 'Trouble is not the only thing in life. It's rewarding to work for an organisation looking to build its brand and position.'

Although always warm and not exactly evasive, Austin is clearly single-minded. Charged with leading me through her extensive CV, she sticks rigidly to the task. She has a lack of ego that RICS will appreciate.

Austin says RICS is not such a radical leap from government because issues such as housing sustainability 'affect everyday lives'. She says RICS's Royal Charter ensures it must serve the public as well as members.

She argues that the challenge to portray RICS as a more modern organisation will allow her to take a more strategic approach. She laments: 'It's not easy to be strategic in government. It's nice to think that, with RICS, it is not just about tomorrow's deadlines.'

RESUME

1987: Regional press officer, Central Office of Information

1994: Head of PR, Highways Agency

1997: Chief press officer, Department of Trade and Industry

2000: Head of media relations, Food Standards Agency

2001: Director of communications, Cabinet Office

2004: Director of public affairs, RICS

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