This week we have another fantastic Q&A in our ‘In Conversation With…’ series. We’re speaking with Philly Spurr, Head of Communications for BBC World Service.
Philly has ample experience and wisdom to share, and so let’s hop straight into the Q&A.
Could you sum up your background and career history?
My first job was working on a reception desk for a radio production company but after a month of answering phones and making coffee, I went to work in their radio marketing team selling in PR stories to local and national radio stations. It really taught me how to pitch and turn any story into something relevant or newsworthy.
From there I went to work for Comic Relief as a media assistant for Red Nose Day and Sport Relief, and found myself in the wonderful world of charity PR. Working on a campaign was very intense and it gave me my first taste of working in a really busy press office. After working for a few different charities I went to work at the BBC in communications for News and Current Affairs. It was absolutely my dream job! I led on the publicity for programmes like Question Time, Panorama and The Today Programme.
I had a short spell away to launch Red Bull TV in the UK for Red Bull and briefly covered a maternity contract at Channel 4 before returning to the BBC as Communications Manager in my old team. This year I became Head of Communications for BBC World Service and it’s such an exciting and varied role which hopefully, post-Covid, will involve some international travel so I can get out and about and meet more of the BBC’s incredible journalists at our many bureaux around the world.
What’s the most satisfying and/or rewarding part of your role?
It’s honestly being able to amplify the incredible journalism that comes out of the BBC. When you work on a huge programme or investigation that you know will set the day’s news agenda and you are part of the team agreeing on the rollout and planning the approach – it’s so exciting. Then you see it all play out and hit the front pages or deal with a flood of incoming requests and it’s wonderful to be part of that and to see all their hard work pay off. Often these programmes are being worked on for months or even years, we just come along at the end and help give it that extra push.
What’s your number one tip for excellent comms?
Be really clear on what you are trying to say. Make sure you know what your top line is and don’t try and cram several stories into one press release. Have a clear distribution plan and if there is more than one news line, think about if there are a few ways you can create different opportunities or moments for it to land.
What’s your advice for someone who would like to do your job one day?
Just go for it!
Read and consume as much news and current affairs as you can from different media and social platforms. Follow interesting people on Twitter, even those you may not agree with – open yourself up to different opinions. And believe in yourself.
You are good and you can do it.
You work with a huge number of people from different cultures and backgrounds and in different languages, how has that influenced your approach? What have you learnt?
I’m hugely privileged to work with so many amazing and talented people at the BBC. Being surrounded by such diversity within the BBC World Service means there is always someone who is an ‘expert’ on a particular topic. It’s so helpful when faced with complex or possibly daunting issues to know that I have a wealth of experience and expertise on hand to turn to. And being surrounded by people with such inspiring careers is really motivating.
When did your passion for news and communications begin?
I’ve always been interested in the news but like many people, I sort of fell into doing communications. I don’t think I really knew what a job in the media looked like when I started out after university (with a drama and theatre studies masters) but I managed to carve out a path that suited me and now I’m in a job where I get to do all the things I enjoy. When I first read the job description for Publicist at BBC News it just hit me that this was exactly what I wanted to do. I have never been so desperate to get a job in my life before and was completely on edge until I got the call offering me the position. It felt like the start of something. And it was.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Although exhausting, working at the BBC during election campaigns is a really exciting time. There is so much to organise from presenter interviews, coverage announcements, media spin rooms at TV debates, prepping crisis Q&As and then the election night programming itself. For the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum and GE2015, I spent the night in the newsroom in case there were any breaking comms issues. There was such a buzz and it was thrilling watching the night unfold. I remember leaving bleary-eyed in the early hours of the morning and stepping out onto a near-deserted Oxford Street thinking I’d watched political history unfold and in a small way, felt part of it.
Have you seen any big shifts in the way people do comms during your career?
At Red Bull, we had a saying which was ‘Content is King’. And it’s so true. It’s not enough these days to just be able to write a lively and engaging press release. Publicists and press officers need to be versatile and have the digital skills to be able to create a whole suite of assets to sell in, whether that is short video clips (always subtitled – being inclusive and accessible is so important!), images, gifs, or something altogether more creative. It’s also a much more collaborative process with journalists. Not everyone wants to be served something that is ready-made and ready to go, they want to put their stamp on it and be involved in the process much earlier on. I worry that if we don’t all sharpen our digital skillset, we may be in danger of being left behind.
What’s one of the biggest learnings of your career so far?
Don’t be afraid to speak truth to power and trust your gut. When I was starting out in my career I was nervous about finding my own voice and would tend to agree with everyone rather than speak up. It’s easy to assume people know better than you but I now have much more confidence in myself. That’s not to say don’t listen to others with more experience than you – but your thoughts and opinions are valid so don’t be afraid to offer them up.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given by a mentor or role model?
Don’t play down successes or pass them off as ‘luck’. Own it.
What are your best crisis comms tips?
Keep a cool head, gather all the facts before making any judgements and talk it through with someone you trust to sense check it. Often things may sound worse than they really are and once you have a grasp of all the facts you can decide on the most appropriate course of action. And if you apologise, make sure it’s genuine.
A massive thank you to Philly for sharing her communications expertise with us today!
If you’d like to be a part of our ‘In conversation with’ series, don’t hesitate to contact us here. Don’t forget you can also read our other ‘In conversation with’ posts such as where we talk to South West Business Insider Deputy Editor, Mike Ribbeck or Duncan MacRae, Founder & Chief Editor, Marketing Gazette.