Disaster has followed Jo Bird around – but it has been good for her career, according to one of her media contacts. Not uncommon perhaps, for an effective crisis management expert.
At the tender age of 33, Bird has gained experience in dishing out media advice on high-profile disasters including the Potters Bar train crash and, more recently, the fatal train derailment in Cumbria.
Since arriving six months ago as the first chief PRO for the British Transport Police (BTP), she has spent her time preparing for the organisation’s worst-case scenario – a multiple terrorist attack.
‘This is the new normality,’ she says in a matter-of-fact fashion from BTP’s shiny new headquarters in Camden. ‘But I am grateful that nothing has happened [in terrorist terms] in my first six months,’ she adds.
It was dealing with the media during the 7/7 bombings in London that convinced Bird’s boss, deputy chief constable Andy Trotter, that he needed a dedicated media team.
Until that point, BTP had survived with a single media manager. Unfortunately for Trotter and BTP, that manager happened to be abroad on 7/7.
‘It was an untenable position to be in,’ says Trotter, ‘but now we have a new team. Jo was a first-class acquisition and brings in good [media] experience from the outside world.’
Bird leads a recently appointed team of 12, which has been primed for a potential terror attack and put to the test with a series of crisis management exercises, the details of which remain under wraps.
‘Our priorities are to keep the train lines open. When serious incidents happen, we aim to reopen lines within 90 minutes,’ she says.
Bird admits that one of her challenges is the very name of the organisation. BTP has responsibility not for policing all public transport, just trains, light rail and the tube in London and the Midlands. In 1984, London Buses decided to stop using the BTP and the British Transport Docks made the same decision the following year.
‘But given the brand’s heritage (it was formed in 1825), I do not think there would be any appetite for changing the name,’ Bird admits.
The rail industry attracts some incredibly enthusiastic people, she adds. ‘When I joined the Strategic Rail Authority I did at first wonder what I had done; the industry has a language of its own, but now I find myself using that very language.’
Indeed, occasionally Bird shifts quickly from being relaxed and open to being rigorously ‘on message’.
Typical of the senior public sector PRO, Bird holds no airs and graces. She makes the tea, serves the biscuits and answers her own phone.
But any air of pretension would be shot down in flames in the BTP offices by the brutal honesty of her uniformed colleagues.
‘There is a beautiful simplicity about knowing where you stand [with police officers],’ she says as a police radio crackles from the adjacent room.
Bird describes BTP officers as ‘extraordinarily relaxed’ considering the formal nature of the environment. Working as she does in a male-dominated organisation, Bird commands a hefty level of respect from her colleagues.
Charming, approachable, yet firm, she has leapfrogged through the first ten years of her career.
She recalls her interview for the not-for-profit body, the Children’s Express Press Agency, as being the hardest she has ever had to do.
'I was terrified. There is something about children; they can ask questions an adult never could. For example, I was asked by the panel (of children) to tell a joke and I don’t know any,’ she shrugs.
She nevertheless managed to land the job as London Bureau editor for the charity.
Now, nearly ten years later, Bird is fronting an incredibly different type of organisation.
Finally BTP, which constantly in the media spotlight and primed for high-profile disasters, is moving into modern times with a sufficiently equipped comms team.
CV - Jo Bird
Head of media & marketing, BTP
Head of media relations, BAA Heathrow
Associate partner, Luther Pendragon
Public affairs manager, Shadow Strategic Rail Authority
Media relations officer, Royal National Institute for Deaf People
London Bureau editor, Children’s Express Press Agency