10 Minutes with PR Pro John Shield

Role: Director of Communications Organisation: BBC John Shield was featured in the 2015 PR Week Global Power Book. As part of our #PRProSeries, Janie Emmerson, MD of Communications at Hanson Search, interviewed John to find out how he made it in the industry.

Why did you get into communications?

I didn’t have a game plan. Originally, I was actually working in a policy environment and a job came up in the press office. I thought, 'that might be interesting', so I applied, got the job, and then my boss at the time did something that upset a government department. They sent in a ‘hit squad’ to sort it out and the net result was that they took me with them. I ended up in a government press office, and from there I went to a range of different Whitehall departments. I worked my way up from Press Officer to Director, working in Number 10 and the Foreign Office. While I had no ‘I must do comms’ plan, the thing I always found appealing was that my jobs have been very heavily issue-led, with interesting people in the organisations. When you have that combination of interesting topic plus dynamic environment, it makes for an entertaining and rewarding job.

What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career?

A huge amount of this is about relationships and being able to gain the trust of the people around you. Being able to walk in their shoes and build that trust enables you to outline how the outside world looks in terms of communications. And it let's you see what you need to do to shape that environment and manage issues on behalf of your clients. You can’t underestimate the importance of that, because ultimately people’s careers are in your hands if you get something wrong. The other thing is being willing to take calculated risks by being logical and working through where a topic might go. Do a bit of crystal ball gazing! Being able to galvanise people into action is also important. I think all of this is a lot simpler than we often give it credit for. You can take an incredibly sophisticated approach to communications, but essentially it’s just being clear about the three or four things you most want to achieve, understanding what you need to do to get them, and systematically tackling those things in quite a rigorous way. That will get you 75% of the way there.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?

That’s difficult because I could get into some fascinating stories I should be more discreet about! There have been various marketing challenges like getting people interested in pension change at the Department for Work & Pensions. At the BBC, one of the key things is making the public aware that there’s a proper debate about the future of the BBC and getting them engaged in that. One of the great advantages of the BBC is that it’s been a constant in people’s lives. The public hugely appreciate and love the BBC – not to say that there aren’t its detractors. But there’s this other debate around it in newspapers and politics, which can become quite divorced from what the public think, so that’s a big challenge. There’s a big debate on what these British institutions are for – it’s important they’re held to account but it’s easy to lose sight of the value they have, both culturally and economically. The BBC is a brand that genuinely brings the nation together like no other brand does. And abroad, it’s the envy of the world.

Who would you say has been the most inspiring person you’ve worked with?

I’ve got huge respect for Tony Hall (Director-General of the BBC), who is tackling the issues at the BBC, while also being immensely charming. It makes my job easier communicating what we’re doing. And having worked for a variety of government administrations, I found there are many politicians who are in politics for the right reasons. They’re hugely passionate about working for an improved Britain. I think many politicians get a really bad rap for doing a very difficult job.

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

To not fear change. I’ve done a variety of jobs, moved around a lot, and I think embracing that change helps you grow, gives you new experiences, keeps you fresh and widens the pool of people you know. I think that’s the most important thing. Also, to do what you’re good at. If you’re genuinely good at something and you enjoy it, that’s the thing to exploit and stick with.

In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry?

The challenge is ensuring your voice remains heard and authoritative where increasingly everyone has a voice and it’s harder to filter them. People are starting to create self-reinforcing worlds, where they connect with like-minded people who then reinforce each other. So one of the challenges is a hardening of opinions around certain topics. While social media can connect people, it can also be quite divisive. How do communicators navigate through that world, and how accountable are the owners of this new digital economy?

What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?

Honest, frank and bold.

Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications?

I’m lucky enough to have done some fantastic roles, so I don’t have a definite ‘I want to do X’. I think you have to be passionate about what you’re doing, so my dream job is whatever one I happen to be doing. Not an exciting answer, but it’s the most honest one I can give you!

Posted on 16.02.2016

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