|From cover to cover|
|Friday, 23 January 2009 15:34|
With a career path that takes in some of the toughest public and private sector roles around, Harper Collins’ Director of Communications Siobhan Kenny has gained experience from both grit and glamour. Heather McGregor reports:
When Siobhan Kenny walked through the entrance of Harper Collins for her final interview, she was both impressed and puzzled. People were gathered on almost every floor of the building, looking down on her as she was escorted toward the lifts. A close-knit community, she thought, and perhaps interested to see who their new director of communications was going to be. A close-knit community it might be, but the woman making her way to the lifts that day wasn’t the main attraction. The biography of Lewis Hamilton was about to be launched and the subject himself was due into the building a few minutes after her arrival. If she did feel a sense of anticlimax, it evaporated when she saw her new workplace. “I love my office,” she says. “It’s next door to chief executive Victoria Barnsley so I’m in on all the action.” Besides, up on the fourth floor next to a light and airy atrium, she has a view over most of the building, the perfect vantage point, she says, to “ogle over the balcony” at Harper Collins’ celebrity signings, which also include Westlife and Gordon Ramsay. Hamilton is a few years younger than Kenny but it is hard to imagine that he has any more energy, drive and focus than she does. A product of St Michael’s Convent Grammar School in Finchley, she is a north London girl who still lives near where she grew up.
She took her first degree in modern languages from Manchester, but only after spending a couple of years living and working in France and Germany – picking grapes in Macon (“Lugny is my vintage, if you’re interested”), tending melons and wines in Provence and doing some hotel work. “I loved every minute of it,” she says. After Manchester Kenny cut her communication teeth with one of the few people who would have rivalled her for energy and drive – Bruce Gyngell, the late leader of TV-am and a man who insisted his team wore pink. “He sent someone home for wearing black once,” she recalls. “But he was an inspirational leader and businessman. He knew all of us, even very lowly graduates like me, and took an interest.” The vibrant environment, long challenging days, and demands of a wide range of stakeholders were good preparation for the public sector – if, perhaps, atypical of the communication industry as a whole. “TV-am was an utterly brilliant place to work,” she says. “I thought every job would be like that.”
She even managed to combine TV-am with a master’s degree in French at Birkbeck. By 1993, her language skills were being pressed into action as press officer at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. She says: “It was a fantastic experience, working in an organisation with 30 member states and so many working languages. I learned a lot about communicating across cultural and other boundaries.” More jobs in the public sector followed – she has been a press officer at the Home Offi ce, the Ministry of Defence (where she met her husband Pat Pearson), and New Scotland Yard. She moved into the Government Information Service to satisfy an appetite for high profile news management, and she certainly got that. One of her earliest tasks was to base herself in Brixton during the Poll Tax riots, and in a never-to-be-forgotten experience she was sent to Rwanda to deal with press after the genocide. “The country had no infrastructure remaining and neighbour had turned on neighbour in bloody slaughter only months before,” she recalls. “As my mum pointed out, I hadn’t even been in the Girl Guides so it was an amazing experience all round.” Kenny’s energy, experience and enthusiasm for public life took her to 10 Downing Street while John Major was prime minister, as one of four press offi cers working for Sir Christopher Meyer, before he was knighted and while he was still the government’s press secretary. Howell James, now group head of communications at Barclays plc, was also there. James’ early memories of Siobhan are of her energy: “She’s a great girl and was a real life force in the Number 10 press room.”
“She’s a great girl, a real life force. And she has resilience and good humour in ample quantities”
In James’s view, the key to Kenny’s success in those early days in No 10 were “resilience and good humour – which she had in ample quantities.” He recalls their regional and overseas tours on a Thursday and Friday night with the PM. “It was a time when he was going through a difficult time.” Resilience and good humour were much needed. Especially so, given the workload – dealing with the PM (a “pretty hard taskmaster”) meant covering just about all domestic and foreign affairs. “These were pretty much the dog days of the Major government and grim in communications terms,” Kenny says. “Even if he had invented a cure for cancer, I doubt if it would have rescued him.” But the tough times translated into tremendous experience. Kenny recalls: “With hindsight, the press operation was ludicrously tiny which obviously changed post-97 – and rightly so. But the advantage, for a new member of a team of only four officers, was that you really did get to spend time with the prime minister.” Following the Labour Party’s 1997 election victory, Kenny had to adjust to a new media style under Alastair Campbell. “He is an inspirational leader and a fantastic boss,” she says. “He is awesomely intelligent and very funny – a winning combination as far as I’m concerned. He brought the No 10 communications team up to date, and part of that was setting up the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU), which gave me a great opportunity to do something slightly beyond the ‘What’s on the Today programme and the News at Ten’ agenda.” Campbell, for his part, describes Kenny as “an innovator” partly for the way she built a stronger profi le for the government in regional media and women’s magazines while at the SCU. “The truth is that most people pay no attention to government most of the time,” she says. “So along with feeding the Westminster news beast, there is a real democratic reason for trying to talk to the voting public about things they actually care about.” It was her involvement in magazines that led to her departure from No 10: she had come to the attention of Terry Mansfi eld, then managing director of the National Magazine Company. “I had no intention of moving from No.10 but Terry changed all that,” she recalls. “He’s a great showman. When we launched the Farmer Wants A Wife campaign by Country Living magazine, nothing would stop him dressing up as a bridegroom and driving a tractor through the streets of Soho to personally drop in on every ad agency in the vicinity. It caused a bit of a stir.” Mansfield approached her to inject more zest and thought to the existing press team. It appealed because she was keen to prove that she could deliver success in a commercial environment, not having worked in one since she had left TV-am many years earlier. Th e challenge was to expand the brands within a business that was under threat from young competition. Kenny re-positioned the communications function to become an integral part of the business planning process, reinforcing its standing within the company.
She became a member of a six-strong management team, responsible for overseeing the corporate image of the company, and running a department looking after 17 magazine brands, shows, brand extensions and internal communications. She took to her role in the private sector, says Howell James, “like a duck to water”. Working for a US company gave Siobhan an understanding of both the power of brand and the importance of the advertising community, both of which were invaluable in what was to come next. Tessa Jowell (who she had met while working at No 10) asked her to apply for the role in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). National Magazines was rewarding, but the size of the challenge at the DCMS was irresistible; both the Olympic bid and the Charter Review were in the pipeline. “I didn’t take much persuading,” Kenny says. “I’ve always thought the DCMS was one of the best Whitehall departments.” It was a big job. She was on the management board, and was closely advising a minister who was in the cabinet. Running a team of 55 with a budget of £3 million, Siobhan became an integral part of the team putting the Communications Act through Parliament. She became heavily involved in important stakeholder work designed to get the industry onside and garner feedback. Key audiences were CEOs of media groups, financial as well as broadcast media and viewer/listener organisations. In addition, she was firefighting on issues such as licensing and gambling and then – just for good measure – she launched the consultation process on the BBC license renewal in the wake of the Hutton Enquiry. When she was at the DCMS, 2012 became a red-letter year in Siobhan Kenny’s forward calendar, in more ways than one.
“Driving a hired red Cadillac down Sunset Boulevard to a work meeting was a bit like my own private Disney movie”
The first 2012 priority was already on the runway when she joined the DCMS: the switchover from analogue to digital television. Convincing the industry to get behind it and educating consumers was a priority for the communications team. Getting to grips with the details of the issues around digital – the opportunities for expansion for some, the threats for others and the potential impact on advertising revenues and viewer figures – was an important learning exercise in looking forward, at technological advances and the challenges they create. Involvement with the BBC Charter renewal was also a chance to look forward. But 2012 took on a completely new meaning when the decision was taken to bid for the Olympics. Of all the challenging and high profile issues that she and her team handled at the DCMS, she says that “top of my list is being part of the team which decided to bid for the London Olympics”. The bid was won the week she left to become vice president, communications, at ABC-Disney Channel, EMEA in July 2005. Th e commute to Hammersmith wasn’t particularly to her liking though. “I am a bit of a North London girl so it’s not exactly convenient,” she says, adding that as a fitness fanatic, “I did cycle a few times but it is a long, long way”. Her communications experience at the DCMS came in handy when Disney launched new channels in South Africa and Poland and content from both Disney and ABC was across multiple platforms – TV, mobile and other technologies. Part of the EMEA management team, she reported to the US and was responsible for a pan-European team of 15 with a budget of $6 million. “I liked the idea of working for a huge global brand and understanding how they are so successful at translating that across cultural boundaries.” The job continued to provide glamour. “Being on the team that built High School Musical from a made-for-TV movie to the huge phenomenon it is, I saw that at very close quarters,” she says. “Honestly, the budgets weren’t bad either to someone who has spent most of their professional life worrying about money.
Driving a hired red Cadillac down Sunset Boulevard to a work meeting was a bit like my own private Disney movie.” The pull of Hollywood wasn’t strong enough to put the mockers on Kenny’s next move, though – to publishing giant Harper Collins. But it’s only now that she spots a trend emerging in what lures her – and it’s not the location: “I must have done something really bad in a former life to have been stationed twice in Hammersmith.” No, the chief draw for her was the boss, Victoria Barnsley. “She is inspirational, a shrewd businesswoman – and has a great sense of humour.” Like Barnsley, Kenny is a strong character, so it is not surprising that she gets on well with other strong characters like Alastair Campbell and Tessa Jowell. She comes across as a lean, svelte, vibrant personality who commands huge trust and loyalty. But perhaps the last words on Kenny should come from Howell James. “She’s good at getting people to do what she wants. She doesn’t take nonsense. But she’s great to work with and she remembers her friends.”