Monday 19 November 2018
Communicators from across government joined the former head of the Civil Service, a former ambassador to the US, Alex Aiken and historian Alexander McKenna to discuss ‘100 Years of Government Communication’ at Admiralty House on 12 November.
The evening focused on ‘100 Years of Government Communication’, written by historian Alexander McKenna and published earlier this year. The book tells the story of how government communicators have developed and evolved the ways we inform and advise the public, from the First World War to the present day. McKenna breathes life into the figures who shaped this story, which was given a powerful resonance by the personal memories and stories of Lord Butler and Sir Christopher.
It was a privilege to hear Lord Robin Butler and Sir Christopher Meyer discuss their long and hugely interesting careers in the Civil Service – though they often preferred to talk about old friends and colleagues, rather than themselves.
Over a 37-year Civil Service career, Lord Butler served as Private Secretary or Cabinet Secretary to five Prime Ministers, from Ted Heath to Tony Blair, before retiring as Head of the Home Civil Service in 1997. He is now a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.
Sir Christopher Meyer’s career began in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1966. After a long and interesting career at the FCO, supplemented with a stint as Press Secretary to John Major, he served as Ambassador to the United States from 1997 – 2003.
The hour-long conversation was full of anecdotes from the panel’s careers, from the relationship between the press and No. 10, and the role of the Prime Minister’s Spokesperson (including heated 2am discussions with Margaret Thatcher), and the notable characters – politicians, press and civil servants – they had met along the way.
During the Q&A, colleagues quizzed the panel on the changing nature of press relations, the importance of listening, and what makes a good civil servant. The message was clear: Government must be unafraid of change, especially communicators, who operate in a rapidly evolving technological and cultural environment. And although we are civil servants, impartial by nature, that does not mean we should be devoid of personality – Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s Press Secretary for 11 years, was invoked admiringly for his fiery and passionate briefing sessions with the press.
This was an important message for all civil servants. We are a mix of characters from across all professions. We all bring individuality, professionalism and integrity to our roles, and this has always been the secret to our success. We are allowed to express our characters, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be courageous in communication.
So, don’t be afraid to express yourself. As Lord Butler said of Bernard Ingham: “unleash your inner thespian”.