Achieving excellence in government media relations

Starting work as a press officer in 1992 I had a phone, a basic computer and a limited induction to the mysterious practices of newspapers.

Early in my career I took a secondment as a ‘broadcasting officer’ to gain experience of working with radio and TV producers. I found out that I preferred the tense but fascinating press officer work of shaping stories and explaining our case, to meeting the never-ending demands of broadcasters for ministers and chasing bookings. The media officer of 2021 still has these core responsibilities but also the need to produce digital content, influence the decision makers and evaluate the impact of their work.

This is why we have updated and reissued the Government Communication Service (GCS) guide to Modern Media Operations. I’m really grateful to the Head of News Group led by Jamie Davies and Adam Shortman for working with me on the new guidance. It is part of our Reshaping GCS modernisation programme and is designed to make sure that we meet the demands of ministers to explain their policies and the demands from the media to receive the information they need to report on the work of the government.

At its heart, the media practice of the GCS covers 5 areas:

  • proactive media
  • reactive media
  • professional relationships
  • digital
  • evaluation

I think that it is vital to teach all these practices to new media officers, and for those like me to remind ourselves of the core of our discipline and reflect on whether we are meeting the highest standards of practice. This should give confidence to new staff and challenge experienced practitioners to improve their work.

The guide sets the 5 core requirements, 17 disciplines and over 100 specific skills that make up the role of a modern media officer. They range from content creation to handling international media.

There is one key skill, worth emphasising, the ability to write clearly and accurately. This helps the public and journalists understand our purpose and the details of government policies. I’d recommend to colleagues that they read the Keith Waterhouse classic ‘On Newspaper style’, and George Orwell’s timeless essay ‘On Politics and the English Language’. Orwell’s 6 lessons including “never use a long word where a short one will do” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” remain good advice to all of us.

I see great practice from government every week. I’m struck by the consistent commitment of our press and digital officers and the quality of advice they offer. From the daily No10 lobby briefings to the monthly explanation of job statistics from DWP, to the professional way Cabinet Office handle the Honours announcement twice a year to the cross government effort on big set piece events like the Budget, led by HMT, and the way colleagues from across government and the Foreign Office work on presenting our diplomatic case – briefing journalists around the world and the foreign media based in London.

The Guide has to be seen in the context of our canon of professional practice. It sets out the skills required to be successful and makes the point that unless you work with policy and integrate media work with other communication disciplines we can’t be completely successful. There is a wealth of detailed guidance on specific areas such as evaluation and crisis communication as part of the new GCS Curriculum, and these are part of the work of an effective media operation.

This is an opportunity for everyone working in public service communication to review and improve their practice.

Our work is based on an ethical and honest approach to the presentation of government policy. This is the basis of our credibility. The guide challenges media officers to develop their digital skills and improve the way we re-evaluate our impact. It also highlights how managing professional relationships, including explaining to policy officials the best way to gain public understanding of complex operations and policies, is a critical part of public debate and therefore of our democracy.

UK Government media relations are respected around the world. This guide has already attracted positive comments from allies and partners who want to know how to improve the way they present policy. But in an era where response, rebuttal and correcting disinformation is part of the modern media toolkit, it is worth remembering the fundamental purpose of their work, set out by my predecessor Kenneth Grubb, in the 1940s:

“Information services …are a recognition of a certain maturity in a democracy. They testify to a society where facts are essential to the formation of views, where prejudice is to be combatted by reason and where policies should be explained if they are to be understood”

In this sense, the new guide builds on the work of 100 years of media practice from the initial Department of Information established by John Buchan to the reforms introduced by Sir Bernard Ingham in the 1980s and the modernisation led by Alastair Campbell in the 1990s and Howell James in the 2000s.

It is the duty of all of us to build our performance, recognising the contribution of those who came before us and striving to be the best we can be in our public service through the practice of media relations.