Introduction to Media
Media relations is at the heart of government communication. Our teams work every day to explain the policies and services of government departments and agencies.
The Government Communication Service (GCS) delivers strategic, audience-led media-activity and sets world-class standards for implementation and delivery. Through these campaigns, communications professionals play a key role across government in:
- promoting and explaining the policies of the government accurately
- changing behaviour by encouraging people to lead healthy, safer lives
- ensuring operational effectiveness of government by informing people about public services
- enhancing and maintaining the reputation of the UK and responding in times of crisis, including promoting interests internationally.
Standards: our operating guide
The Modern Media Operations Guide sets out the skills and capabilities government media relations teams require to deal with the combined demands of the general public, media outlets, ministers and stakeholders in a 24/7/365 digital age.
Media relations in Whitehall have come a long way since the first publication of the Modern Communications Operating Model (MCOM). Across the GCS, media offices, news teams and media centres are working proactively with campaigns and digital colleagues, evaluating their work, planning future communications strategically and dealing with reactive issues and events. In doing so, media teams have remained at the forefront of the GCS profession. Invariably the first port of call for ministers, media teams operate at a fast pace under the spotlight of a truly unrelenting breaking news cycle, fuelled by the rise of social and digital media consumption. Never has this been more the case than in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK’s departure from the European Union.
The purpose of this guide is to:
- identify benchmarks for the skills and capabilities that a successful media relations team can provide to its parent organisation and ministers
- provide awareness to key internal stakeholders (e.g. permanent secretaries, special advisers, ministers, policy/operational colleagues) of the services provided, and value added, by a modern media team
- outline in clear terms the functional elements of modern media operations, and promote retaining and attracting top talent to create and maintain a culture of constant innovation and flexibility to respond to the latest media trends
- encourage the sharing of best practice between media relations and the GCS teams across departments and Arm’s Length Bodies (ALBs).
MCOM outlines the key principles on how public sector media teams should operate. The essential premise is that each department/ALB requires a media operation to set the external agenda rather than simply follow it. The model then lists practical ways to achieve this, including:
- delivering strategic government messages as outlined in the latest Government Communications Plan
- horizon scanning and planning to plot and assess potential coverage in advance
- creating and seeding stories strategically to showcase policy and operational delivery
- highly responsive reactive handling capability to explain policy and spike inaccuracy before publication
- evaluation of output based on sentiment, message penetration and driving behaviour change or consumer action, rather than volume of coverage as the most basic measure of success.
As a body of professional communicators, the GCS uses a range of media to reach audiences with the right mix of communications. We reach people directly through stakeholders, paid-for media or marketing and direct communications to people through digital and social channels. However, the reality is that established media outlets – print, online and broadcast – remain powerful actors in shaping how the public think and feel about government policy, and what they do as a result.
There is no mandated one size-fits-all Press office/Media relations team structure. Each government organisation has team structures designed to meet their own needs.
The key is to ensure that, whatever the organisation’s chart may look like, there is an emphasis on the connection required to:
- enable effective media relations work
- ensure appropriate integration with other communications functions
- develop and nurture talent through effective and clear leadership
- position the function for strong relationship management with key stakeholders.
For further information on team principles, access the MCOM guide.
Propriety and conduct
In carrying out these functions, across all aspects of their work, GCS members (central government departments, agencies and ALBs) must follow the Civil Service Code, which sets out the Civil Service values of:
- Integrity – putting the obligations of public service above personal interests
- Honesty – being truthful and open
- Objectivity – basing advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence
- Impartiality – serving governments of different political parties equally well.
GCS members will also work at all times within the framework of propriety set for government communications, which mandates that government communication must:
- be relevant to government responsibilities
- be objective and explanatory
- be undertaken in an economic and appropriate way
- not be (or liable to be construed as) party political.
The framework also mandates that GCS members may not:
- justify or defend policies in political terms
- advance any policy as belonging to a particular party
- directly attack the policies and opinions of opposition parties and groups
- oversell policies, re-announce achievements or investments, or otherwise mislead the public.
Further reading and details are included in the Propriety section.
Core functional requirements
There are five core functional aspects that practitioners across a media relations team are required to operate with confidence and appropriate expertise.
Directors and Heads of Communication, in consultation with the Head of News, should ensure that their media relations teams have the required capability in these aspects so they can deliver effective day-to-day operations.
They should also plan and enable the necessary professional development of the team, and make sure that the team is equipped to cope resiliently when individuals leave and new colleagues join.
The information below details the key specific requirements for best practice for each of the five aspects.
Proactive media handling
- Making announcements
- Nations and regions
- Consumer media
- Media targeting ethnic minorities
Reactive media handling
- Media monitoring
- Call handling/rebuttal
- Crisis communications
- Policy shaping and corporate
- Integration with other comms disciplines
- Ministerial and special adviser engagement
- Winning and retaining journalists’ trust
- Content creation
Insight and evaluation
1. Proactive media handling
(a) Making announcements
- Place stories in a strategic way to reach target audiences, aligned to departmental business objectives and ministerial priorities.
- Ensure work aligns and integrates with strategic communications priorities and narratives and, where possible, campaign work.
- Media announcements should support long-term government messages and drive behaviour change.
- Use tools such as OASIS (Objectives, Audience insight, Strategy/idea, Implementation, Scoring/evaluation) to plan and properly target proactive work.
- Use a tactical approach to focus primarily on reaching intended audiences, being ‘channel agnostic’ and not relying solely on traditional print media.
- Produce high-quality handling plans that include key products: press notices, potential risks, core scripts/briefing, technical journalist briefings and Q&A packs.
- Consider the use of comment pieces, op-eds, blogs and shareable social media content.
- Engage early with broadcast planning desks and correspondents to discuss how your announcement can work on TV or radio.
- Work with broadcasters and stakeholders to identify filming opportunities, locations and backdrops that are authentic and illustrate your announcement.
- Speak regularly to key correspondents and build knowledge on their areas of expertise and interest.
- Make sure agreed press notices and media products are adopted as core narratives to inform the work of other communications teams where appropriate.
- Work with stakeholders through communications or policy colleagues to build third-party advocacy and support (in print, online, on broadcast) for announcements.
- Consider the use of trailing and embargoes to maximise impact and coverage and/or to avoid conflict with other expected news.
(b) Nations and regions
- Find regional and devolved nations angles for UK-wide announcements, showing tangible impact or benefit.
- Tell local stories and adapt announcements to local regions (e.g. how many local jobs created for the area).
- Recognise the different political situations in each nation, and what powers are devolved. Ensure people know that a release is from the UK government.
- Set up media rounds for ministerial visits that include broadcast and key print for area visited.
- Adapt stories for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, acknowledging the difference between national and regional media. Know when to use terms such as region, country and nation.
- Understand the BBC’s Central News Service (CNS) regional service and its reach, and use it where it applies.
- Be aware that broadcast media is increasingly tailored to specific regional and national audiences, including bespoke news programmes for Scotland and other areas of the UK.
(c) Consumer media
- Use non-news media, including broadcast, to showcase and explain government policies – e.g. long-lead TV, TV magazine programmes, documentary films.
- Work closely with campaign specialists to support priorities through consumer, specialist and trade channels.
- Plan long-term consumer campaigns that will stand up against the rigours of an ever-changing news agenda and central government priorities.
(d) Ethnic minority audiences
- Identify ways to reach ethnic minority audiences for national policy announcements as a ‘business as usual’ approach.
- Provide explanation of all aspects of policy – lines to take and briefing for contentious and difficult issues.
- Maintain a database of key titles for communities across the UK and feed into centrally held lists of publications.
- Have regular discussions with ethnic minority media contacts and titles to build an understanding of how best to reach specific audiences through the right channels.
- Engage with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and other international departments for advice on international announcements.
- Understand the international role of the UK government, specifically in security, prosperity and development, and how this relates to domestic policies (e.g. exports, jobs).
- Assess, advise and include in-country media when ministers travel overseas.
- Maintain an up-to-date database of key international media contacts.
- Arrange ministerial and senior official briefings for international media.
- Engage UK-based international media and build relationships with key correspondents. Invite media to briefings and send them press notices.
- Use social media channels to reach overseas audiences with tailored messages.
2. Reactive media handling
(a) Media monitoring
- Provide 24/7 real-time monitoring of relevant coverage, with news as a priority, but also including online, social and specialist channels as resources allow.
- Evaluate news coverage to understand and pre-empt the direction of stories – evaluation should be turned into insight and learning over time and shared across teams.
- Identify and flag important individual coverage including comments from stakeholders and parliamentarians.
- Develop a real-time monitoring system that is focused and concise, ensuring that ministers, special advisers, senior officials and departments hear about relevant ‘breaking news’ swiftly, ideally from the in-house communications team first.
- Add professional expertise to coverage summaries by forecasting upcoming stories.
- Monitor parliamentary business (Prime Minister’s Questions, Urgent Questions, Oral Questions, select committees and hearings).
(b) Call handling/rebuttal
- Have a proactive approach to anticipating possible criticism and risk, and preparing in advance.
- Work at pace to get relevant information to draft effective responses in the context of wider departmental and government priorities. Directly tackle the main issue with clear, concise language.
- Deal with journalists confidently and helpfully. Judge how stories will be presented and their prominence (is it a front page story or a page lead? Is it a bulletin item or leading the news?).
- Engage with journalists verbally and have the confidence and ability to effectively brief to shape and contextualise stories, and prevent or correct inaccurate coverage.
- Use digital and other channels for rapid rebuttal where needed (media blog, social media, ministerial social media statements, etc.).
- Give ministers and special advisers the confidence that the department is rebutting negative media through regular updates, including out of hours.
- Evaluate rebuttal and response effectiveness, by tracking stories that do not appear as a result of rebuttals (spiked) as well as sentiment or prominence of response in coverage.
(c) Crisis communications
- Establish the facts as quickly as possible and identify contact points for key areas (policy/operational lead, ministerial liaison, communications lead, etc.).
- Initiate immediate and close media monitoring, including social media and digital online.
- Produce initial ‘holding statements’ and key Q&As to clarify facts.
- Consider the rebuttal of inaccurate commentary and proactively issuing agreed statements.
- Produce handling and contingency plans for potential crises, covering likely scenarios, responses, possible triggers for media bids, stakeholder engagement and cross-government conference calls when appropriate.
- Prepare content, when possible and appropriate, before crises, in line with risk and likelihood.
- Work with other communications colleagues to address potential longer-term and reputation-recovery campaigns, in particular the Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit, to help combat the spread of disinformation.
3. Relationship management
(a) Policy shaping and corporate
- Develop productive working relationships with policy and service delivery teams to understand their priorities, structures, policies and desired outcomes, and build these into communication objectives.
- Get involved in policy and service development from an early stage – not just in the few days before an announcement – to ensure communications objectives align with policy objectives.
- Build the authority to engage with internal and external stakeholders on how media might react to a policy announcement or proposal and how to best communicate policy.
- Use knowledge of ministerial priorities to aid policy development.
- Observe the principles laid down for best practice in co-operation between No.10 and departments, share responses with No.10 promptly before lobby, make sure regular and routine meetings with No.10 colleagues take place.
- Act as an advocate for the department in dealings with ministers, explaining the overall communication goals and advising on a course of action.
(b) Integration with other communications
- Work in partnership with communications colleagues from all disciplines to ensure consistent, creative, strategic external communications across channels and audiences.
- Work across teams to identify which channel might be the most effective in reaching the target audience (e.g. stakeholder or digital) and plan handling accordingly.
- Media activity should support long-term campaigns not just short-term emerging issues.
(c) Ministerial and special adviser engagement
- Build strong relationships with private offices to build trust and ensure access to decision makers.
- Maintain productive relationships with ministers through regular engagement and informed advice.
- Identify ministerial priorities and use them to shape media output and policy development.
- Build productive working relationships with special advisers, including acting as advocates for the department.
- Understand ministerial requirements and provide regular media briefings to ministers and special advisers.
- Accompany ministers to media interviews and regional visits.
- Provide media training and coaching to ministers and senior officials to improve the presentation of policy.
(d) Winning and retaining journalists’ trust
- Build professional relationships with journalists based on honesty, authority and credibility.
- Identify the most influential journalists on particular topics and maintain ongoing relationships.
- Stay up to date on media trends and understand the approach and style of different journalists.
- Adhere at all times to the Civil Service Code.
4. Digital/content creation
- Be digital by default, using the advice provided by the GCS and Government Digital Service to use online tools to reach specific audiences, engage with people and assess the impact of your work.
- Embed digital channels in all media handling and use digital and social media channels for both proactive announcements and reactive media handling.
- Work with internal or external digital communications specialists to consider digital from the outset of campaign planning.
- Use online communication tools to maximise all campaign, event and media work
- Work with digital teams to tailor messaging and approach for social media, adapting content to different audiences.
- Work with digital teams to focus on image, graphic or video-led content for maximum engagement.
- Have a set process for digital use in crisis communications that is practised and understood.
- Use digital channels for rebuttal and immediate reaction.
- Manage or advise on social media accounts for ministers.
- Actively monitor social and online media for emerging issues and proactive opportunities.
- Identify and work with key influencers on social media to amplify messaging.
- Collaborate across other government departments to amplify digital messaging.
- Share lessons learned and best practice with colleagues across the GCS.
(b) Content creation
- Build a culture of experimentation and continuous improvement to ensure content remains engaging and fresh.
- Encourage access to all communicators so they can produce or effectively commission products such as video and images for social media e.g. infographics.
- Produce high-quality content in-house for use by media outlets, or commission Design102 or external agencies to deliver this content.
- Repurpose content for different digital channels and audiences to ensure it is as effective as possible, based on detailed research.
- Have the capability in place to ensure content can be produced quickly during a fast-moving news event.
- Plan and produce (or commission) relevant, engaging and shareable content appropriate to channels and government messaging.
- Provide practical services including filming, editing and producing new content, or brief Design102 or external agencies to deliver this work.
- Provide staff with content production software and hardware when appropriate and cost-effective.
- Follow the GCS guidance on accessibility.
- Monitor emerging trends to research and utilise new channels.
- Build strong relationships with digital and picture desks in news organisations.
- Understand data protection, consent, copyright and intellectual property law around featuring case studies and use of third-party content.
5. Insight and evaluation
- Use insight to identify and secure different audiences, and inform media handling proposals.
- Better target your work by considering how audience characteristics such as age, gender, social class and education level inform media consumption habits.
- Use departmental or cross-government polling and insight tools to inform handling approaches and measure effectiveness of announcements and campaigns over the longer term.
- Use audience measurement tools such as National Readership Survey (NRS), the
- Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) and Comscore across print, broadcast and digital, and at national and regional levels.
- Identify clear and SMART communications objectives around outputs, outtakes and outcomes, including deciding ‘success’ measurements and how data will be collected.
- Use a dashboard (or similar tool) to monitor and record activity as it is delivered in line with the GCS Evaluation Framework.
- Identify ‘lessons learned’ from each media project and share learning with the rest of the team, with the wider directorate and across the department.
- Produce an evaluation pack that highlights reach/coverage, assesses content (positive, negative, neutral) and identifies message penetration, as well as business impact delivered through comms.
- Find innovative ways to evaluate rebuttal, briefing and story shaping, including by tracking sentiment or prominence of responses in coverage or coverage that does not appear as a result of briefing/rebuttal.
- Track sentiment over longer periods to identify shifts in the tone of coverage and provide early warning of emerging issues and trends. In particular, draw on departmental or cross-government polling and insight gathering to measure long-term effectiveness and audience sentiment.
- Identify media outlets that don’t carry ministerial lines or run stories without checking properly and work with them to improve relationships.
- Integrate different media – print, digital, broadcast – into evaluation to provide a comprehensive picture.
You can find a wide range of case studies on our pages. These resonate with the specific requirements of the five core aspects as outlined above.
As well as providing a useful resource for media teams across the GCS, these case studies should inform exchanges and secondments between departments to ensure best practice is recognised and shared. Teams should always be proactive in sharing best practice and contacting teams in other departments to seek advice and support.
To develop full capability in all the aspects described, a media relations practitioner will require:
- significant experience
- exposure to the relevant work opportunities
- support to build their capability through training, coaching and self-managed learning
The GCS Career Framework sets out the competencies required at different levels (AIO/ IO, SIO, G7/G6). The content on press and media work, considered alongside this guide, is helpful in terms of setting out requirements for specific grades and planning exposure to further work opportunities.
Conclusion by Jamie Davies, Prime Minister’s Deputy Official Spokesperson and No10 Head of News
No two days are ever the same working in No10. But one thing I can always count on is the great support of press officers from right across government. Every day, media teams are working to support ministers and departments, often at extremely short notice on some of the toughest issues of the day. Media teams are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year but I’m always amazed at, and very grateful for, the quality of advice and information that teams are able to provide, no matter what the the hour is.
Government ministers understand the media and its nuances and rightly value the skills that media teams bring, but part of our role too is to help them constantly evolve their thinking around the media. How to use the media to drive behaviour change – to inform people or businesses to take action to do something – is really what we have to try and do day to day. Our audiences have never been more diverse, which means the day to day nature of our jobs must also follow suit.
We’ve made huge strides as a profession – none more so than the past year where daily government press conferences helped pass on Covid safety messaging directly to a public hungry for reliable news. You have to love pace, immediacy and constant change to thrive in this job, and as the media itself innovates, so too must we.
I have had the pleasure of working in multiple government departments over the years and I have been lucky to work with some of the best communicators you could hope to meet. One thing they all had in common was that they were all highly experienced in their respective fields and had spent years honing their skills and building their expertise. They all took their own development seriously and it is incumbent on us all to do the same; this guide has been written to support you in that effort. The learning and development offer that is now available is as good as it has ever been, but it is only useful if people take advantage of it.
I strongly believe that innovative spirit is ingrained in all media officers which is why this Media Guide is such an important tool in drawing out the best practices across the government. I hope that everyone who reads this can use it to critically assess their own performance and use it as a tool to develop.
Think about the needs of your audience at the planning stage, so your posts are accessible. Use our checklist and best practice: Planning, creating and publishing accessible social media campaigns.
GCS members must adhere to the Civil Service Code online as well as offline. Social media is a public forum and the same considerations apply as would to speaking in public or writing something for publication, either officially or in a personal capacity outside of work.
Read our guidance: Propriety in digital and social media.
The Social media guidance for civil servants is intended to help civil servants to use social media to enhance their work while maintaining the highest levels of integrity.