Powerful PR lessons from former Downing Street Digital Comms Chief Peter Heneghan 

Peter Heneghan has one of the most intriguing CVs in comms. He has worked for prestigious organisations including the Government, BBC News, BuzzFeed and LADbible and recently launched his own consultancy The Future Communicator.

His depth of experience knits together comms, digital and AI expertise – and working at the heart of government during the Covid pandemic – probably the most demanding of recent scenarios for anyone in comms.

Peter sat down with his longtime friend and fellow PR pro Ben Titchmarsh, Associate Director of Partnerships at Propeller Group for one of our recent Comms Club sessions for a wide-ranging talk that touched on the big industry issues of the day.

Pursuing a pathway in comms

Peter had an unusual pathway into comms, being one of the first of his family to go to university via a Guinness Brewery Scholarship and having “no media connections whatsoever.” He said: “I’m really  passionate about allowing people the opportunity no matter what their background is, because once you open that door and give people an opportunity, great things can happen off the back of that.”

He pointed out his first big opportunity was an opening lower down the ladder at the BBC. Working in the organisation gave him a  range of experience from  the corporate press office to Radio One, 6Music and 5Live.

These roles taught him the art of communicating effectively and how important it is to listen and soak up knowledge. He said: “My recommendation to people is to take opportunities. Make yourself available to be part of the organisation. My experience was incredible and doing this means your CV grows as a result.”

Perspectives from the pandemic

Peter was plunged into the COVID crisis a few months after taking the role of UK Government Head of Digital Communications at the UK Government. He said: “From a communications point of view, It was a real galvanising force. We pulled together at the centre, in the cabinet office and at Number 10 Downing Street, the best, most skilled behavioural scientists, data scientists, media relations and social media and marketing teams.”

Lessons learnt include taking advantage of any opportunity to bolster resources: “My biggest learning from the period was we had a small finite window where we could ask for any resource we wanted –  and that door closed relatively quickly. I wish I’d asked for more resources as we were figuring it out as we went along.”

Peter said he was immensely proud of what his team achieved and points to changes and innovations such as the introduction of public questions at the daily press conferences. “My favourite moment was the very first question, which came from a grandmother from Skipton. She basically asked a question that a journalist would never ask, and it was simply, ‘when do I get to hug my grandkids?’ I remember thinking to myself ‘wow, that’s such a powerful question to be asking because we all can relate to that.’”

He does feel the media should have cut the comms team a little slack and said: “a lot of hardworking civil servants were trying to pull together and really drive home the messages that we needed to. There was a lot of hard work put in and that was never really kind of fully respected.”

Social media and substance

Peter has seen the power of social media and viral content first-hand at Lad Bible, Buzzfeed and the BBC. He pointed out that  Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti talks about the idea that content should do something for its audience – it can provide humour but also be informative, be a companion and be helpful.

“Content needs to do something for you. The traditional media approach is we will tell you something that’s important and you will consume it. And actually, with social, there was something new and exciting that was possible to have hop off the back of that. So, I was quite an early adopter of social media.”

He said it had informed how he tells his stories and added: “That’s something that I think all communicators should really think about. Just because your exec wants you to put out a story relating to X or Y doesn’t mean you should put it out in that way. You need to find who the audience is. Why should people care about this, and then you need to put it out in the appropriate format.

“I think if you can build on a strong narrative with great storytelling and, and in the right format, that’s when you’ll have your most success.”

Storytelling is an art

Storytelling and tapping into an emotional response are the best way to get the message across. Peter said that the media  – and the government – are occasionally guilty of looking down on their audience.

“One of the things I was proud of was being part of this shift towards stopping pointing at people and telling them what to do and instead trying to be much more empathetic in our storytelling, because that’s when you’ll have the best impact.”

He pointed to strong examples in comms around COVID where the approach was ‘help protect your loved ones’ rather than demands just to download the NHS app. “We all have loved ones in our lives. That was so much more relatable and we can all get behind that and we were proud of the British people because they downloaded the app in huge numbers.”

Leaders must be great communicators

Comms teams – like any other part of an organisation – need clear direction and an understanding of the goals of a project. Peter stressed: “If you can get a leader to communicate with absolute clarity and drive that through your business to your staff, to your stakeholders, to your investors, to your customers, that’s when you are going to have the most impactful work. “I think when you’re in a time of crisis, one of the worst things that can happen, particularly internally within an organisation, is that the leaders aren’t effective at communicating to their staff. So, the staff are working on projects but they don’t fully understand why they’re doing it or why it aligns to the overall vision for the business.”

He experienced a lot of upheaval while working in government comms with constant changes in leadership and direction but the same turbulence is also found in other organisations. “This is happening at every business because every business is going through digital disruption right now. They need leaders who can communicate effectively and that means in person, and it means through social media and so forth.”

AI will transform the comms industry

AI will change business and the business of communication dramatically Peter believes.

“For me, it’s the equivalent of reading by candlelight and then somebody introduces electricity and we’re only at the beginning of that process.”  He urged the communication sector to get up to speed on how Chat GPT and Generative AI tools can be used and “hardwire” the knowledge into comms strategy and execution.

“I think we’re now at a really interesting point, particularly for Gen Z audiences, where you can reach people at unbelievable scale. Introducing AI into the process means that the quality is going to be so much better and some incredible work is going to emerge off the back of it.”

He cautioned against “overcompensating with AI” and using the output as the final product rather than to generate a first draft to be refined. But Peter sees AI underpinning a bright future ahead and said: “I’m optimistic about it and I think it’ll be a really exciting time for communicators.”

Big thanks to Peter Heneghan for taking part in Comms Club 2023. You can watch the full interview below.