Propriety & Ethics Guidance for Government Communicators

A comprehensive guide on best practices in propriety, made specifically for government communicators.


Maintaining a high standard of propriety and ethics within government communications is fundamental to preserving trust in public institutions. It is the job of the Government Communication Service (GCS) to explain the policies of the government and support the delivery of its priorities. Government communicators must carry out their work objectively and without political bias, with any content produced by civil servants demonstrably relevant to government responsibilities and a justifiable use of public funds.  

This guidance has been developed by GCS to inform all government communicators of their responsibilities, and support them by providing real examples, scenario-based advice and a clear process to access help or raise concerns. Propriety – how to raise a concern (GCS members only) will provide information on the steps involved, with more detail provided towards the end of this page. 

In addition, the GCS Propriety & Ethics training course has been created to provide insight and support on these hugely important topics in an engaging way.  The training course is mandatory for all GCS members in ministerial departments to complete, and strongly recommended for those working in ALBs. 

The course provides you with the knowledge you need to deliver communications responsibly and confidently.  You will hear from senior communications leaders who share what they’ve learnt from navigating complex situations, as well as bringing to life the dilemmas we all might face using a mixture of real life case studies and a fictional scenario for you to work through. 

The course also assists you with the practical elements of managing stakeholders and raising concerns.

There are additional issues which must be considered in the run-up to local, general and European elections or referenda. Specific election guidance is published by the Cabinet Office prior to each event.

As a general guide to the type of restrictions that may apply, government communicators are advised to consult previous examples of election guidance.

Election guidance for civil servants
Guidance on the conduct of civil servants in the pre-election period.

Guiding principles of Government Communication

1. Government communications should be relevant to government responsibilities

The focus of government communications must be on areas where the Government has direct and significant responsibilities, i.e. explaining government policy and decisions, or alerting the public during times of crisis.  Government communication needs to be justified in these terms, and not stray into areas which are party political or which cannot be linked back to core government responsibilities. If you have any concerns, doubts or questions, you are strongly encouraged to discuss these with your Director or Head of Communications.  

2. Government communication should be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical

It is important that any information shared with the public, either directly or via the media, is as objective as possible. As set out above, government communications should seek to explain the decisions of the government of the day in a balanced and objective way.  It should not be biased in terms of how the information is presented or what is shared with the public.  Government communications should not attack or be critical of groups which may oppose a decision or policy.  This is what we mean when we refer to government communications as not being polemical in tone.  This would not be an acceptable use of government resources and risks affecting the ability of civil servants to work with such groups constructively either now or in the future.  

3. Government communication should not be – or liable to be – misrepresented as being party political

As a civil servant, it is our duty to present and describe the policies of a Minister, and to put forward the Minister’s justification in defence of them.  However, it would not be appropriate to justify or defend those policies in party political terms.  As set out above, whilst it may be necessary to respond to the policies or opinions of opposition parties and groups, this should be done carefully, factually and objectively.

Whilst it is possible that a well-founded publicity campaign can create political credit for the party in government, this must not be the primary or a significant purpose of government communication activities.  In addition, whilst it may be right to acknowledge the part played by individual Ministers, personal image-making must be avoided. 

An example of where propriety and ethics considerations need to be especially carefully thought through is when communications teams are asked to produce constituency-specific materials.

Ministers or Special Advisers may ask government communications teams to produce briefing materials, including graphics, for specific geographical areas or constituencies.  In this scenario it is very important that clear justification, supported by factual evidence, is set out as to why the communication of government policy or decisions may be needed with audiences in that specific area. 

To ensure there is no risk to your communication team’s impartiality, or perceived impartiality, GCS and Cabinet Office guidance is as follows:

  • As the accounting officer, the Permanent Secretary is the ultimate decision-maker
  • The material should be genuinely cross-party, a justifiable use of public funds, and compatible with the overall GCS propriety guidance
  • If the project is likely to use official information not already in the public domain, Ministerial authorisation to share it must be obtained
  • The material must be presented objectively and impartially;  in terms of objectivity, graphics must be an accurate representation of the facts
  • The selection of constituencies should be impartial and based on government policy and factual evidence from the department.  It cannot be used as a way to promote a particular political party’s agenda 
  • Check and adhere to any specific pieces of guidance for statistical and social research activities (generally and in the particular circumstances of political events such as elections or referendums), 

4. Government communication should be conducted in an economic and appropriate way and should be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds

The Government is accountable to Parliament for the use it makes of Civil Service staff or other public resources or expenditure.  The resources employed should be proportional to the objectives or policy of the programme involved and justifiable on value-for-money grounds.  

Government communication teams should follow GCS guidance on how to deliver effective campaigns, specifically the OASIS campaign planning framework and the GCS Evaluation Cycle. In addition, all campaigns or programmes which involve expenditure over £100,000 over a financial year needs approval via Cabinet Office Advertising, Marketing and Communication spending controls before spend is committed.  All communications expenditure must be carefully justified. 

Ministers and the press office

It is the duty of media officers to communicate the policies of their department to the public through the media and to try to ensure that the policies are understood. The communication must always reflect the ministerial line clearly, even where policies are opposed by opposition parties.

As part of the Government’s duty to govern, it needs to explain its policies and decisions to the electorate. The Government has the right to expect the department to further its policies and objectives, regardless of how politically controversial they might be.

Media officers have a duty to abide by the Civil Service Code and to remain objective and impartial, especially when dealing with politically controversial issues.

To work effectively, media officers must establish their impartiality and neutrality with the news media, and ensure that they deal with all news media even-handedly. Central to the media officer’s specific role is the responsibility to help the public – by helping journalists – to understand the policies of the government of the day.


  • Present, describe and justify the thinking behind the policies of the Minister
  • Be ready to promote the policies of the department and the Government as a whole
  • Make as positive a case as the facts warrant
  • Speak on the record as a departmental spokesperson wherever possible, and avoid unattributed quotes
  • Insist that all political aspects are handled by the party political press office or Special Adviser
  • Feel free to discuss any aspect of propriety with your Head of News and Director of Communications.


  • Justify or defend policies in party political terms
  • Expressly advance any policy as belonging to a particular political party
  • Directly attack the policies and opinions of opposition parties and groups (although on occasion it may be necessary to respond in specific terms)
  • Oversell policies, re-announce achievements or investments and claim them as new or otherwise attempt to mislead the public.

On a day-to-day basis, media officers should take particular care when handling:

  • Decisions taken by Ministers fulfilling their statutory responsibilities which directly affect individuals or groups. These must be handled with particular care, to secure an impartial and objective presentation of the case that avoids inaccuracy, inconsistency or bias
  • Ministerial speeches or statements
  • Ministers using the Press Office to ensure that their policy and actions are explained and presented in a positive light. Ministers can do this, but care must be taken that any press activity is designed to further government objectives.

Working with Ministers

Working with Ministers can be exciting and rewarding, and often leads to government communicators becoming highly motivated and involved. As civil servants, government communicators must abide by their obligations under the Civil Service Code at all times. This includes their obligation to be impartial (and politically impartial).

The Ministerial Code sets out that Ministers must not use government resources for party political purposes, must uphold the political impartiality of the civil service, and must not ask civil servants to act in a way that would conflict with the Civil Service Code.

Communicators and other public resources are provided to help Ministers explain the Government’s policies in a positive light. Government communicators or other resources cannot be used for image-making, or building Ministers’ personal brands, which is the province of the Minister’s political party. .

Individually, communicators must behave in a way that will allow them to work for any future Minister of any future government. They must also work effectively as part of a team that includes Ministers, Special Advisers and other government communicators inside and outside their department.

It is in everyone’s best interests to build and maintain a good working relationship with all members of the team. And that relationship should be firmly grounded in the rules that set out what the different players can and cannot do, and what they should not be asked to do.

The Director of Communications is responsible to the Permanent Secretary and the Chief Executive of GCS for ensuring that government communicators understand the limits of their remit, providing any necessary support and advice.

The webinar on working with Special Advisers and Ministers – (GCS members only) provides some helpful guidance on building strong collaborative relationships when working with Ministers and Special Advisers. 

All civil servants should refer to the Cabinet Office guidance on party conferences.  It sets out that:

  • Civil servants are prohibited from attending party conferences in an official capacity except in very exceptional circumstances.  These would be where their presence may be required to carry out essential departmental business unconnected with the conference. Any such attendance must be approved in advance by the Permanent Secretary.
  • If this is not a pre-election period, and there are no restrictions on government business normal procedures, including collective agreement, the requirements of Managing Public Money and the Civil Service Code, all apply.
  • Care should be taken to ensure that all announcements have been through proper processes and are based on official advice, including regarding timing. Government announcements, as always, must not include party political content.

If a government announcement is due to be made (subject to the above considerations and based on official advice), press releases/media briefings can be made in support of the announcement to explain the policy change.  This should be done in the usual way and in line with GCS principles. Any social media should follow the text of the announcement rather than drawing on conference clips or wording.

There will be borderline cases. In these instances, the Director of Communications will be responsible for weighing up the matter and deciding whether publishing an official release might risk damaging the integrity of the department.

Invariably, it would be better to suggest that such material be issued through the political channels.

To some extent, the venue for ministerial speeches will determine whether or not texts can be issued by departments. Speeches made at conferences, rallies or occasions organised by political parties should usually be issued by party press offices. All others can be issued as official texts – unless they contain party political messages.

Any announcement of a new policy must always respect the primacy of Parliament. If a Minister announces a new policy outside the House, they risk being reprimanded by the Speaker.

The announcement must reach all MPs via an Answer to a Parliamentary Question or a Statement. An Answer or Statement must clearly state the timing of the announcement and copies of relevant material must be available in the Houses of Parliament at that time. Departmental parliamentary clerks are able to offer advice on this. In recess, a press notice can be used if it is copied to the relevant select committee chair and placed in the Library of the House.

In the sense that government communicators work directly with and for ministers who are politically motivated, government communications cannot be free of political content. But at all times it is essential to remember that, as civil servants, government communicators cannot join the political battle.

Government communicators regardless of discipline should do nothing that leaves Ministers and the department open to criticism in this respect.

Journalists do not discriminate between official and private activity, which means that government communicators may find themselves dealing with enquiries about Ministers’ holidays, families and other issues, possibly during official duties such as press briefings on policy change. Normally these would be dealt with by the Minister’s constituency office, but if the enquiry is about a minor matter, the Press Office can deal with it, if the Minister wishes.

In cases of doubt, the Director of Communications may want to consult the Permanent Secretary.

As with all government communications, the GCS propriety guidance applies in the context of visits.  If you are unsure about something you should seek advice from your Director of Communications.

Any communications content produced by the Civil Service must be relevant to government responsibilities and a justifiable use of public money. The same principle applies to photography and social media content.

Photographs taken and published by departments are public domain and any organisation can use them. Party political colleagues/headquarters should not be allowed to film while an official visit is ongoing.

Once the official part of the visit – delivered by civil servants – has concluded, any civil service support ends. If political colleagues then wish to film for party political reasons, they can do so, from that point onwards. They should make their own arrangements, in terms of contacting hosts and stakeholders to ensure they are welcome to film and stakeholders are content to participate in filming.

Footage or images captured by Special Advisers whilst working as a temporary civil servant in an official capacity cannot be used at a later date for party political purposes.

Digital and social media 

The principles covering the use of digital media by civil servants in both an official and personal capacity are the same as those that apply for any other media. Social media, for example, is a public forum and the same considerations apply as would, say, to speaking in public or writing something for publication either officially or in a personal capacity outside of work.

All government communication through digital channels must be consistent with the Civil Service Code and the established criteria for government communication outlined above. 

Here are five things to bear in mind when using social and digital media, either at work or in a personal capacity:

  1. Common sense: Social media helps us work openly and connect with the citizens we serve – just remember to apply common sense!
  2. Adhere to the Civil Service Code: Apply the same standards online as are required offline, whether acting in an official or personal capacity.
  3. Doubts? If in doubt, don’t post it.
  4. Accuracy: Check the accuracy and sensitivity of what you are posting before pressing submit.
  5. Permanence: Remember that once something is posted online, it’s very difficult to remove it.

Detailed guidance is available from the Propriety in digital and social media page.

Marketing and publicity 

The propriety challenges facing government communicators who work in marketing and publicity may be more subtle than for those working with ministers, but they are no less important. A substantial amount of public funds are spent on campaigns every year. It is essential that the cost of this paid publicity can be justified and reflects best practices. 

The Government has a duty to inform the public about legislation, policies, the services available to them and their rights and liabilities. All communications and marketing programmes must be considered in the light of propriety and value for money. Government communicators are advised to keep a record of the options considered and the rationale for the decision taken.

Paid publicity may be used where the Government believes that a direct approach to the public is needed to give more information about particular issues and policies. This type of publicity is wide ranging and may follow legislation which has given the public new entitlements or obligations. Whatever the publicity is for, it needs to comply with Ofcom regulations on television and radio advertising.

All paid publicity work must be objective, factual, appropriate and intended to communicate government policies. It should not be, or appear to be, used for party political purposes. This applies to all aspects of the work, including content, context, treatment, style, tone and quality of presentation. The cost of any paid publicity must be justified and in proportion to the message being communicated.

The Government also has a responsibility and a right to use publicity to encourage behaviour that is in the public interest (for example crime prevention or road safety advertising). These campaigns may include a wide range of media channels and techniques to engage with audiences in a timely, appropriate and effective manner. Some of these simply provide factual information and practical advice, but others need to be more persuasive in content and presentation. Similar publicity is used to explain changes in the law that affect individuals or businesses, or the work of their professional advisers and intermediaries e.g. accountants, tax advisers, Citizens Advice Bureaux, etc.

There may be some sensitivity where the matters publicised are the product of controversial legislation or potentially controversial policies. However, the Government has a responsibility to inform the public of policy and legislative changes. Government communicators must ensure that the information is presented in an objective way that concentrates on informing the public about the content of legislation and how it affects them.

The Government may use a variety of media, including paid and unpaid publicity, to achieve its objectives.

Papers, briefings and documents set out what the Government is doing and what it wants to achieve and may cover topics that are politically controversial. In this case, government communicators must ensure that the content and tone remain objective, impartial and within the rules of the Civil Service Code.

Distribution of unsolicited material must be carefully controlled. As a general rule, publicity touching on politically controversial issues should not reach members of the public unsolicited, except where the information clearly and directly affects their interests.

Spending public money on direct communication with the public can be one of the areas most sensitive to propriety issues.

It is right and proper for government to use public funds and resources for publicity and advertising to explain their policies and to inform the public of the government services available to them and of their rights and liabilities. However, these resources may not be used to support publicity for party political purposes.

This rule governs not only decisions about what may or may not be published, but also the content, style and distribution of what is published.

The tests on value for money must be applied, and the costs of paid publicity must be justified.

Cabinet Office spending controls help organisations to reduce unnecessary spending and encourage cross-government collaboration. The controls cover many different areas of spending, including advertising, marketing and communications (AMC).

The AMC spending controls apply to campaigns, projects or programmes with planned communications expenditure of £100,000 or more within a financial year (FY) and must be followed.

Political advertising is covered by the Communications Act 2003 and is regulated by the Office of Communications (Ofcom). Publicity campaign managers need to ensure that any paid-for information complies with the Act.

Publicity managers should be aware that Ofcom has retained responsibility for the regulation of political advertising. In all other respects, the regulation of broadcast (in addition to non-broadcast) advertising passed to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on 1 November 2004.

The UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code) outlines the rules on political advertising. The Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code outlines the rules on sponsorship credit.

The Communications Act contains the following requirements in relation to the regulation of political advertising (which could include government information campaigns):

  • Information campaigns should not be directed towards a political end or be of a political nature
  • Information campaigns should not be partial
  • Information campaigns should not promote (i.e. sell) a government policy
  • Information campaigns should not influence public opinion on a matter which is, in the United Kingdom, a matter of public controversy.

Although not explicitly spelt out in the Act, the following further guidance is included regarding areas that could be problematic and therefore likely to be referred by the regulator to Ofcom:

  • Information campaigns cannot be used to list the Government’s achievements
  • Information campaigns cannot be used to provide balance to an argument or to put the record straight (e.g. in the case of biased or inaccurate media reporting)
  • Approval for information campaigns may be withdrawn by the regulator (ASA) on the advice of Ofcom, if the campaign itself creates genuine public controversy.

Direct marketing

Direct marketing is a term used to cover publicity methods that either involve a direct approach to an individual or seek a response directly from an individual.

The Government uses direct marketing when it needs to communicate directly with a specific target audience.

Direct marketing is a valuable, cost-effective, measurable media channel. However, when unsolicited, it can be regarded as intrusive and a nuisance. Inappropriate use in the past by commercial organisations has led to unsolicited material being labelled as junk mail or, in the case of digital activity, spam. This has created resistance among some recipients.

Direct marketing techniques are a valuable part of the range of publicity media available to government, often offering cost-effective and measurable solutions to many publicity problems. However, some of the techniques are seen as intrusive, and some commercial users have sent out material to inappropriate recipients. Against this background, departments must take care if they are to obtain the benefits while avoiding criticism.

As a publicity medium, direct marketing is covered by the general guidance on government publicity. As that guidance makes clear, it is unlikely that the unsolicited distribution of material about policies that require – but have not obtained – parliamentary approval will be considered proper. In other cases, direct marketing may be appropriate.

Before embarking on a direct marketing initiative, departments must satisfy themselves that its use can be justified according to the following criteria:

  • Is direct marketing appropriate for the campaign and is its use within the general guidance on propriety and value for money?
  • Will the direct distribution of material be considered over-intrusive by recipients?
  • Are suitable, reliable and accurate address lists available, and will their use be within GDPR guidelines?
  • Are other departments planning to approach the same audience over the period of the campaign? Are there opportunities to piggyback on existing mail shots and other departmental communications e.g. newsletters, notifications.

The Data and Marketing (DM) Code is the direct marketing industry’s most far-reaching set of best practice guidelines, and is upheld by the industry’s independent self-regulatory body, the Direct Marketing Commission.

Public relations consultancy

Government departments can use PR consultancies or agencies for some work, provided that certain criteria are met.  Please refer to guidance on procurement set out in MCOM 3.0 which sets out that government frameworks must be used for the purchasing of external advertising, marketing and communications services and support.  

Buying communication support – GCS will also help determine which framework is correct to use.   

As a general rule, PR consultancies:

  • Cannot represent Ministers. Only civil servants who are directly controlled and answerable to Ministers may explain Ministers’ policies and deal with the media or others on their behalf
  • Cannot be used for any task that would be improper for a civil servant, such as opinion-forming in political support of Ministers or image-building
  • Must not be used when internal resources are available for the task

There are some tasks for which a PR consultancy might properly be employed. However, the nature of the work should drive the selection of the consultancy, not the name of the PR firm. For example, financial PR agencies have been engaged on a consultancy basis in the privatisation of nationalised industry, following Parliament’s approval of the privatisation. Other PR agencies have been used for design and other presentational purposes, such as support for publicity campaigns of a strictly uncontentious nature.

The use of a PR consultancy or agency must meet all propriety, procurement and value-for-money criteria. Within these parameters, PR consultancies can be used to help deliver strictly non-contentious publicity programmes

Before engaging a PR consultancy, departments must satisfy themselves that the appointment meets the following criteria:

  • Is the task to be done relevant to government responsibilities?
  • Could it be carried out by the Government’s own employees? If not, can the appointment of a consultancy be justified as a cost-effective way of reaching the target audience and provide the best value for money?
  • Does the use of a consultancy, in this case, comply with the rules of propriety?
  • Is the task discrete and closely defined?
  • Are the supervisory arrangements adequate to keep the consultancy to its brief?
  • Are the arrangements for the appointment thorough and clear?

If you are using an outside PR agency, it is important to have a clear and concise brief. The brief should cover background details and research, objectives and aims, target audiences, markets and resources. Make sure it also includes a timetable, budget, any particular constraints and considerations – and evaluation techniques.

If departments have any doubts about the propriety of engaging a PR consultant, they should seek the advice of their departmental Director of Communications, who may turn to the Executive Director for Government Communication as Head of Profession.

The purpose of this section is to provide guidance on legal and other restrictions that can affect the reporting of civil and criminal proceedings, and demonstrate how to deal with media enquiries about criminal cases.


  • Be aware of the potential sensitivities affecting civil and criminal proceedings and commercially sensitive information
  • Understand the restrictions that affect news reporting of such information
  • Ensure that reporters are made aware of these restrictions, whenever necessary
  • Always check with legal advisers or appropriate officials before using advice that has not been updated very recently.

There are legal constraints governing the release of some commercially sensitive information. The implications for communicators can be very important. The unsanctioned release of certain categories of information can result in legal action against the offender.

The two types of information that require such careful handling are ‘commercial in confidence’ and ‘market-sensitive’ information.

‘Commercial confidentiality’ usually relates to information surrounding the negotiation of contracts where price is the determining factor. Such information has a bearing on the fairness of contract negotiations and could be of advantage to others involved in negotiations.

‘Market sensitivity’ refers to information that could affect share prices or the value of sterling and/or exchange rates. Some examples of market-sensitive information are:

  • Merger decisions – either referral to the Competition Commission or their clearance by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
  • Decisions by the utility regulators
  • The release of official statistics, such as the retail prices index.

In such cases, information is usually released at a time when markets are not trading or in such a way that ensures an orderly market. This is usually achieved through the use of the London Stock Exchange’s regulatory news service (RNS) , which is disseminated digitally to the market. The RNS  ensures that announcements, particularly those that might affect market activity and the price of securities, are validated and communicated promptly. Where relevant, the London Stock Exchange and Department for Business and Trade (DBT) Press Offices encourage communications officers to seek advice on this issue.

Some departments conduct criminal prosecutions. As well as presenting and dealing with queries about policies and performance, their communications officers will also need to deal with media interest in particular cases.

There are statutory and common-law restraints, as well as specific reporting restrictions – temporary or permanent – which the court may impose on particular cases.

Great care must be taken when providing background information or promoting the work of the organisation to ensure that no information is given that could prejudice proceedings, identify protected victims or witnesses, or otherwise give rise to contempt of court.

Journalists, editors and their legal advisers should be aware of the restrictions that govern the reporting of proceedings and it is their responsibility to ensure that published material is within the legal requirements that apply to that case. But government communicators representing prosecuting authorities have a particular responsibility to know and respect the rules and restrictions that apply, particularly when seeking to attract media interest or briefing on a background basis.

Government communicators operating within these rules should be fully trained and have ready access to advice about what can and cannot be reported about criminal proceedings.

The following is a summary of the main considerations and reporting restraints. A useful source of further information is the book McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists.

Once legal proceedings are active – i.e. from arrest or issue of a warrant for arrest right through the magistrates’ court or Crown Court – reporting restrictions apply. Restrictions lapse after sentence, but if an appeal is lodged, legal proceedings are active again.

After arrest and charge, and before trial, the media may report only the following information:

  • the name of the court and names of the magistrates
  • the names, addresses and occupations of the parties and witnesses and ages of the accused and witnesses
  • the offence(s), or a summary of them, with which the accused is charged
  • the names of counsel and solicitors in the proceedings
  • any decision to commit the accused, or any of the accused, to trial and any decision on the disposal of the case of those not committed
  • the committal charges, or a summary of them
  • the court to which the case is committed
  • in cases where proceedings are adjourned, the date and place to which they are adjourned
  • whether bail has been granted and any conditions (but not the reasons for its being opposed or refused)
  • whether legal aid was granted.

At this stage, government communicators should release no more than this information to the media.

There are tighter restrictions on the reporting of cases involving juveniles and sexual offences. The rules are complex and, if necessary, you should consult reference books or a lawyer.

The accused can apply to have the reporting restrictions lifted. In this case, the magistrates are required to make an order to lift them. If there is more than one accused, they all have the opportunity to make representations before a decision is taken.

It is not advisable to release or confirm the name of a person who has been arrested until they have been charged. This is because that person may not be charged and may complain that they have been tried and convicted by the media. It is not appropriate to give the race, colour, religion or sexual orientation of the defendant unless it is directly relevant to the prosecution.

During a trial, the media are entitled to publish or broadcast a fair and accurate report of legal proceedings held in public while proceedings are active (Section 4(1), Contempt of Court Act 1981). This means the evidence is given in open court. Often journalists who have not attended court will ask what happened. Be careful, as you will not know exactly what has been said unless you were present.

You must not give details of evidence that has not been given in open court or that has been excluded by the judge.

A judge or magistrate can impose reporting restrictions, particularly in cases involving children and young people, or if future proceedings may be prejudiced by reports of the current trial. Journalists are responsible for complying with these restrictions. The court has a responsibility to display Contempt Orders and Orders under the Children and Young Persons Act publicly, and inform journalists about them on request.

What happens if these reporting restrictions are breached?

If you give information that is subject to an Order restricting publication, and the media publish or broadcast it, proceedings for contempt may be brought against the publisher or broadcaster. You may find yourself mentioned by name in those proceedings and you and your department will be criticised and reported to the Attorney General. The defendant may argue that they cannot get a fair trial and the judge may agree and order an acquittal.

Pre-trial briefings by government officials or lawyers should be given only in exceptional circumstances, as there could be a risk of substantial prejudice to the trial. In addition, the defence may ask for material to be disclosed to them. You should seek advice from senior lawyers, and the consent of Ministers or the head of the organisation. Any briefing should be limited to carefully selected journalists and should be strictly controlled. Details of evidence should not be given. Journalists must sign an undertaking not to use any of the background information until after the verdict. Briefings during the judge’s summing up, after all the evidence has been given, are usually preferable.

There is usually no problem with holding on-the-record briefings or press conferences or issuing statements or press releases after the verdict, but bear in mind that there may be an appeal.

Counsel’s opening speech, which summarises the prosecution case, maybe
released to the media on a ‘check against delivery’ basis, so that it can be published after the jury has heard it.

If you believe a report of a criminal case in which your department is involved may be in contempt, or in breach of the restrictions in the magistrates’ court, or if you hear of any forthcoming report which may cause concern, you should obtain all the information you can and contact the lawyer involved as soon as possible. If the report has already appeared, the Crown’s lawyer will consider whether it should be drawn to the attention of the judge or magistrate. If the report has not yet been published or broadcast, an injunction may be sought. This is a matter for the law officers.

Guidance has been prepared by the Treasury Solicitor on the correct procedures for communications officers. It is advisable to keep a copy for out-of-hours duty.

Civil cases are usually heard by judges sitting without a jury, but there are some exceptions to this rule.

Civil jury trials seldom involve government departments directly. The exceptions are civil cases heard by a jury and relating to:

  • libel
  • slander
  • actions against the police for alleged wrongful arrest, assault and malicious prosecution.

The area of civil law in which departments are most likely to become involved is judicial review. Judicial review is the procedure by which decisions by the executive can be challenged on the grounds of irrationality, perversity, breach of natural justice and procedural impropriety. Such actions often name the relevant Secretary of State, which leads the media to request statements from the department.

Judicial reviews are frequently brought on behalf of individuals, with the support of pressure groups that are recognised by the courts as having the necessary legal standing to bring proceedings in matters concerning them, even though they are not directly affected by the decision under review.

Judicial reviews may themselves be the subject of review by a higher court (the House of Lords or the European Court of Justice), in which case there is little substantive comment that may be made by government spokespeople. Nevertheless, communicators would be well advised to keep a close eye on matters that may call for a response from the department.

The legislative environment

The day-to-day work of government communicators must be understood in the wider context of the legislative environment. There is a range of legislation relating to the work of government communicators and they should, at least, have awareness of data protection, Welsh language, disability discrimination, freedom of information and copyright.

The work of government communicators must:

  • conform to the principles of the Data Protection Act
  • deliver information in ways that meet the specific requirements of people with disabilities
  • where appropriate and reasonably practicable, treat the Welsh language as equal with English, and not just as a translation
  • be aware of the Freedom of Information Act
  • for all commissioned material, consider seeking a formal assignment of copyright in favour of the Crown
  • keep up to date on current legislative changes.

Government communicators must ensure that their work conforms to the principles of the Data Protection Act 2018. This act controls how personal information is used by organisations, businesses and government, and every government communicator must have an understanding of the eight data protection principles. This includes when it is necessary to complete a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA). Please refer to ICO guidance on when this is required.

MCOM contains further information about the Data Protection Act 2018 and your obligations under it as government communicators.

The Equality Act 2010 aims to protect individuals from discrimination or unfair treatment on the basis of their protected characteristics. The nine protected characteristics under the Act are:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

The Public Sector Equality Duty

The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) places a legal obligation on the public bodies (and those performing functions on behalf of them) to consider how any policy or decision affects people who are protected under the Equality Act.

There are three aims of the Public Sector Equality Duty (set out in Section 149 (1):

  • eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;
  • advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;
  • foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.

As government communicators, we all have a responsibility to create accessible and inclusive communications. 

The Equality Act 2010 requires the government to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that everyone has equal access to information, goods and services. If your communication is about something that will affect disabled people, or they are entitled to know or be included in, you will need to ensure that you have done as much as can be reasonably expected to ensure they can access and respond to the information.

GCS has set out accessibility standards which all GCS communications content should meet. The standards also help you to think through how you can make your content inclusive to different audiences, so that it has a wider and more effective impact.

In 2022, the British Sign Language (BSL) Act became law, meaning that British Sign Language (BSL) is a recognised language of the UK. The BSL Act requires ministerial departments to report on their use and promotion of BSL in public announcements on policy or changes to the law, including:

  • publication of plans, strategies, policy and other consultations and consultation responses
  • press conferences
  • social media and
  • websites

There is no statutory requirement for all government communications to be translated into BSL. But, all government departments are expected to consider where the use of BSL will be of most interest and importance to Deaf BSL users.

GCS has published guidance to support government communicators, policy officials and others to provide BSL content to those who need it.

The Welsh Language Act 1993 applies to public bodies that provide a service to the public in Wales. Although government departments and Crown bodies are not bound by statute to adhere to the Act, the Government gave an undertaking that they would do so. This applies when the service is provided to people in Wales, regardless of the location of the supplier. The principle of the Act is that: ‘In Wales, the English and Welsh languages should be treated on the basis of equality.’ Welsh should not be treated just as a translation if it is appropriate and reasonably practicable for it to be treated with equality.

Government departments, Crown bodies and those public bodies covered by the Act are under an obligation to draw up a scheme for approval by the Welsh Language Board (established under the Act). It was stated that schemes should include measures that:

  • are descriptions of the services available in Wales
  • are practical arrangements
  • put in place an implementation and monitoring framework
  • include an implementation timetable
  • are more than policy statements.

The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 (the Measure) modernised the existing legal framework regarding the use of the Welsh language in the delivery of public services.  It includes provision about the official status of the Welsh language and sets out that the Welsh language is treated no less favourably than the English language.

You are advised to check whether your department’s scheme has been submitted and approved. If this is the case, you must ensure compliance.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came fully into force on 1 January 2005. The Act creates a statutory right of access to information on regional and local public bodies, including central and local government, the health and education sectors, the armed forces and the police. The Act allows any individual, anywhere, the right to have access to information held in any form by a public authority, subject to 23 exemptions to protect information that should properly be kept confidential. The right of access is fully retrospective.

Decisions on disclosure under the Act should be based on a presumption of openness. The majority of exemptions are subject to a public interest test (where the public authority may only use the exemption if the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosure).

More information about the Act can be found on the Office of the Information Commissioner’s website.


Government departments have a responsibility for ensuring that the conventions on propriety are observed and that value for money is being achieved. The principal source of advice to Ministers and heads of departments is the departmental Director of Communications.

Officials planning publicity or advertising campaigns should consult their departmental Director of Communications at the earliest stage and Heads of Department should ensure that the Director of Communications and the finance division have sufficient opportunity to advise on proposals for paid publicity. All proposals for paid activity are subject to scrutiny and expenditure is only permitted where:

  • The Government has a legal duty to provide people with information, such as changes to legislation or public services
  • Marketing and advertising are critical to the effective running of the Government
  • There is robust evidence that marketing and advertising deliver measurable outcomes that meet government objectives.

No contractual arrangements with third-party suppliers can be entered into without prior approval under the terms of the controls.

If the departmental arrangements work well, the need for reference to central advice on propriety should be very limited. Central advice should be sought in the following three distinct circumstances:

  • If a publicity proposal falls into a category where central reference is mandatory, as is at present the case for paid publicity in advance of legislative approval
  • If a proposal is novel or contentious in expenditure terms, in which case early reference to the Cabinet Office team who administers the AMC spending controls is advised
  • Where a Minister, Head of Department or Director of Communications wants a second opinion on the compatibility of a proposal with the current central guidance.

Departments may wish to seek professional advice on the most appropriate and effective ways of meeting their publicity objectives.

Directors of Communications can provide this advice both directly and in consultation with the wide range of private sector specialists that they commission and manage.

Directors of Communications regularly exchange advice and experience with their opposite numbers in other government departments and can consult the GCS propriety team and the Executive Director for Government Communication on matters of communications propriety, if required. They will advise if the matter needs further consideration by the Propriety and Ethics Team in the Cabinet Office, or by the Head of the Home Civil Service.

Government publicity for proposals which are, or may become, the subject of legislation in Parliament remains a particularly sensitive area. Until such measures have become law, any government publicity must neither assume nor anticipate parliamentary approval. Ministers should make sure that all proposals for paid publicity (including, for example, leaflets) which refer to legislation in advance of parliamentary approval, together with the proposed distribution of the material, are considered by the Cabinet Secretary and copied to the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

Paid publicity is used extensively by the Government to recruit people for various front-line public services. This is generally non-controversial, but the cost must still be justified.

As with any other kind of public expenditure, responsibility for ensuring the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of a publicity proposal lies with departments.

The Accounting Officer’s general value-for-money responsibility is, if anything, more acute in this area because of the high visibility of public expenditure and the potential intangibility of results. A rigorous examination of all proposals for publicity expenditure, starting from first principles, is therefore essential.

In addition, all proposals for paid activities are subject to scrutiny.

How to raise a concern

Here’s how you, as a member of GCS, should raise an issue or concern – and how we will support you to do so. 

Stage 1

Bring it to the attention of a colleague or manager immediately. Refer to the GCS Propriety guidance, and:

Stage 2

If you feel the concern can’t be resolved at team level, consult your departmental Director of Communications (DoC):

  • Keep to the facts and stay neutral
  • DoCs can also advise if the matter needs further consideration from the Propriety and Ethics team at Cabinet Office.

Stage 3

Contact the GCS propriety inbox:

For further help and advice, send your queries to the GCS inbox:

All messages and concerns raised will be handled directly by the Chief Operating Officer (Gem Walsh) and will be treated with confidence and sensitivity. We aim to reply within 3 working days.



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Published 2014
Last updated February 2024