Strolling towards one of the world’s most famous doors at 10 Downing Street in 2019, it was already a “bizarre” start to Peter Heneghan’s brand new job.
Greeted by angry protesters with placards as issues around Brexit rumbled on, daily demonstrations outside the office soon became the norm. Proud of his working-class dual Irish and Mancunian heritage, Heneghan was suddenly immersed into a completely different world.
“The headline ‘LADbible’s head of communications gets a job at Number 10’ sparked some interest – and eye rolls,” Heneghan tells Prolific North.
“Once you knew the depth of my career, you’d understand that actually, they were onto something. They needed someone to evolve their communications.”
Before taking on the role as head of digital communications for 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, he was head of communications at LADbible for two years, previously head of communications for UK and Europe at BuzzFeed and held publicity roles at Channel 4 and the BBC.
From overseeing BuzzFeed’s investigation into match-fixing in tennis to digging into the World Cup for BBC Panorama, he’s worked on “all sorts of weird, wonderful and important projects”.
“I was the person who convinced Panorama and Channel 4 Dispatches to use Twitter and take the learnings from those early reality TV shows where content was instantly pushed on social media,” he says. “I know that’s commonplace now, but it certainly wasn’t back then!”
Heneghan on Newsnight
Working with viral publisher LADbible to transform its image over the years, he helped with campaigns such as UOKM8, aimed at encouraging young people to talk about mental health, to Trash Isles, a Cannes Lions-winning social responsibility campaign.
It soon sparked the interest of the government and he was invited into Number 10 to talk about “reaching huge audiences at scale”. Soon after, he was hired to help the government with its digital communications. But he could never have imagined the rollercoaster he’d find himself on over the next three and a half years.
“It chipped away at public trust”: Inside Number 10 during Covid
“When you look at Number 10 Downing Street, you think it’s a tiny building. It’s one building and lots of other buildings knocked through – it’s huge once you’re inside.”
In March 2020, that huge operation behind Downing Street would suddenly be thrust into chaos as the country grappled with the start of the Covid pandemic. App pings, daily press conferences and online misinformation became reality.
“For the first time ever, we had to reach every single person in the country by any means possible,” he says. “Things that would have taken years, we were able to do in a matter of days.”
With “a lot of persuading”, Heneghan was able to tap into his experiences from LADbible and BuzzFeed to transform the government’s digital communications.
“Over time, we became much more empathetic and storytelling was at the heart of the work we did, particularly during Covid. We started to become more like a publisher, trying to reach every member of the public through thousands of pieces of content.”
Racing against the clock to push out important updates to a population of around 67 million people was no mean feat.
Ex PM Boris Johnson
Like the rest of the UK tuning in at home, the communications team either found out about important updates just before the press conferences or as they were announced live.
“Usually with a campaign, you’d get a bit of notice even if it’s only a day or two. We weren’t getting any notice, we were literally listening and watching and then having to take that message and turn it into social content,” he explains. “We had to do things really, really fast.”
It wasn’t just getting information out as quickly as possible to the public, working closely with the big social networks from Meta, TikTok and WhatsApp were crucial in pushing out the message too. “On social media, you’d suddenly see our content. Google allowed us to have their homepage, which is almost impossible to get access to.”
Attempting to reach the public, including marginalised communities, was just one part of the challenge. Whether it was eye-test trips to Barnard Castle, affair scandals or Downing Street staff parties, crisis after crisis began to emerge behind the scenes, making his job increasingly difficult.
“When ministers were saying or doing the wrong thing, it was undermining our ability to do our jobs effectively and gain the public’s trust.
“We were being told by the government to get back out to work and we were trying to convince the public to do the right thing, social distance and follow the rules. Then you’re hearing about Dominic Cummings or Matt Hancock, it did have some impact on our work.
“As soon as the public sees people in power not behaving appropriately, it allows them to say: ‘Well, the rules don’t apply and therefore they don’t apply to me either’.
“The level of political infighting and mistakes – it wasn’t just one or two, it was many. As a result, it chipped away at the trust the public had.”
Despite the backlash facing the government over its handling of the pandemic, he still gives credit to ministers.
“This all happened so quickly,” he explains. Trying to mobilise the country, especially from a communications perspective, was similar to a “war situation”.
“There were always going to be some mistakes in a pandemic because we hadn’t had one for around 100 years.
“If the government ever has a crisis like that again, we will be much better at dealing with it. I think that applies to all governments across the world.”
Conspiracy theories and launching The Future Communicator
From 5G to an alleged depopulation plan, wild conspiracy theories and myths about the origins of Covid began to spread just as quickly as the virus did.
Overseeing various departments including the small social team in charge of the prime minister and UK government social channels, he was also responsible for a team called ‘rapid response unit’, tasked with countering misinformation.
“You’ll never be able to convince certain people. They’ve made their mind up,” he says. “The last thing we needed was some crazy conspiracy spreading amongst communities so there was some powerful work done to limit that.”
Many of the bizarre conspiracy theories were being shared from closed WhatsApp groups. “I worked with WhatsApp, they reduced the amount of people you can share content with indirectly because of the government and pressure elsewhere.”
Liaising with social network providers and feeding information back to various government departments was a “big undertaking”. He worked on government campaigns and projects with the likes of Meta and helped to create a chatbot to tackle misinformation sprouting up online.
There were often tough judgement calls to make – informing the public about those conspiracy theories could help to fuel them further.
“Inadvertently you end up telling more people about the conspiracy theory, then the mainstream media picks up on it and they inform everyone, then there’s all this misinformation where you help spread it by bringing it to people’s attention.”
The comms team would dig into analytics and look at how often misinformation was being spread across platforms like Twitter. They would then make a decision on whether they’d produce content to tackle it or work with social media influencers – including reality TV stars from Love Island – to get messages out to certain audiences.
“We worked with many influencers during the pandemic, from all sorts of communities. This is where my experience at LADbible and BuzzFeed really helped as you need to do it in the right tone of voice so those communities listen.”
As businesses face mounting pressures over a disengaged workforce, the cost of living crisis or struggles with emerging technologies and the rise of AI, his ambition is to empower leaders to adapt to innovation and communicate more positively.
“Social media is more important than ever before but most of the senior leaders are too terrified about it,” he explains. “Those leaders need help to become more digital first. I understand business challenges, I’ve been on this treadmill for so long and after working with very senior people, I think I can help leaders to become great communicators.”
“There’s a golden opportunity here to start building that next, great communications company.”