Profile: Ed Williams, Director of Communications, BBC

The BBC's comms boss has had an eventful first year but remains sanguine. Cathy Wallace spoke to him.

Ed Williams
Ed Williams

Ed Williams must be thoroughly sick of Jonathan Ross - if not the man himself, then at least the mention of his name. It is hard to imagine more than a day going by at White City without at least one call to the BBC's press office about the comedy presenter. In fact, just days after PRWeek met Williams, director of comms at the BBC, the broadcaster announced 'Wossy's' Radio 2 show would no longer be broadcast live, after another on-air gaffe.

But Williams, a lanky, likeable bloke in his late 30s, insists: 'I do not see things like the Andrew Sachs saga as a high point or a low point of my job. It is just life at the BBC. These are the issues we have to manage.'

Considering the drubbing the BBC took over Sachsgate - the broadcast scandal in which Ross and Russell Brand left lewd messages on the actor's answerphone - you could forgive Williams if he launched into an anti-media tirade. But of course he is smarter than that. 'I don't blame the media for the criticism we received around Ross and Brand. Absolutely not,' he says. 'The media are there to challenge the BBC, hold it to account and ensure we are delivering value to the public.'

And when it comes to the BBC's response, Williams is pragmatic: 'We got it wrong. The broadcast should never have happened, so we can't get upset because we have difficult headlines.'

If there is one thing to which Williams has become accustomed in his year at the BBC, it is difficult headlines. From the Carol Thatcher racism row and the BBC's controversial decision not to broadcast a Gaza aid appeal, to an admission by presenter Carrie Gracie that she earns £92,000 a year, the broadcaster is rarely out of the newspapers. Gracie was forced to justify her salary after she was confronted by a Labour peer she was interviewing about the MPs' expenses row. Williams would not give an opinion on Gracie's confession. 'It is not for me to approve or disapprove,' he insists.

It is not that such celebrity gossip is beneath Williams, rather that he maintains what he calls 'a sense of proportion'. He explains: 'There are issues that are going to have a real impact on the licence fee payer, and then there are stories that are written by the media, for the media. There is a real difference between the two.'

Williams has an impressive media pedigree. He started his career as a journalist, later moving to top City PR agency Brunswick. He then joined Reuters, where he was head of the PR team, before being approached by the BBC. Despite all this, Williams says nothing could have prepared him for the role he has taken on at the broadcaster.

He talks of Sachsgate as his first big test. 'In my first few months, even though we were getting up to 100 pages of press cuttings a day, it was very quiet,' he says. 'Donald Steel, head of press, said to me "This isn't what life at the BBC is like". Then we had Ross and Brand, and Donald said "This is what life at the BBC is really like".'

Simon Walker, former director of marketing and comms at Reuters, where he worked with Williams, thinks his former colleague has what it takes to succeed in the BBC role: 'He's great with people and knows how to be tough when he has to be, but he's sensitive to business and political winds. He's also great fun to be around: he lifts your spirits when he walks into the room, and most PR people don't do that.'

Williams states that his 'big agenda' at the BBC is openness, accountability and transparency: 'We need to demonstrate that we are delivering public value.'

But isn't the BBC regularly criticised for failing to disclose the salaries it pays to stars such as Ross, Terry Wogan and controversial Radio 1 presenter Chris Moyles?

'Part of that is on privacy grounds, but partly it is to keep a grip on inflation,' says Williams. 'You can imagine what it would be like if presenter X saw presenter Y's pay.' Difficult headlines would be sure to follow.

He is vocal on the need to rebuild public trust. But for a PR professional, he is very realistic about what comms can achieve on its own. 'If we are to rebuild public trust, it can't be spun and it's not going to be done through public relations,' he says. 'It will be a change of behaviour and of values.'

Could such a change of values mean people no longer see the purpose of a publicly-funded broadcaster? Williams is confident that will not happen: 'When you look at the value for money the BBC delivers - it works out at 39p a day.'

He is equally defensive about the argument that the BBC, with its guaranteed public funding, is causing the wider media market to fail: 'Look at the US. There's a market failure in journalism over there, even though there is no BBC.'


Ed Williams Turning Points

What was your biggest career break?

Making the transition from working in breakfast television at GMTV, where I was news editor, to joining PR agency Brunswick.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Simon Walker, who is currently chief executive of the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association. He was previously corporate communications and marketing director at Reuters. His careful calibration of the work/life balance is something I admire enormously.

What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Put the hours in, meet as many people as you can and build a network. Also, take on some pro-bono work. I used to work pro-bono as an adviser to the International Crisis Group, a non-profit conflict resolution organisation.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Indefatigable energy and enthusiasm, mental toughness, intelligence and good taste.



2008: Director of communications, BBC

2007: Director of comms, Reuters

2006: Adviser and CEO's speech writer, Reuters

2006: Director of communications, 3

2000: Director, Brunswick Group LLP

1996: Various news roles, rising to news editor, GMTV

1994: Trainee journalist at London News Service, and freelance journalist for The Independent

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