There is no off-the-shelf script for telling your minister the live broadcast interview they just conducted was a bit of a car crash. The “How was that?” question normally comes after the first appearance of a gruelling round of early-morning TV and radio interviews.
You probably didn’t get more than three hours sleep the night before. Your minister even less so. Critical, therefore, that your answer finds the sweet spot that blends positive reinforcement with a dollop of critical encouragement. It’s a bit like walking a metaphorical tightrope. Whilst jet-lagged. It really could go either way.
You don’t want to derail any remaining interviews by analysing the negatives like Gordon Ramsay would a below-par Beef Wellington but you also want to avoid complacency setting in by giving the impression they’ve knocked it out the ballpark.
“That was a bit bumpy”, was a post-grilling favourite line of mine to deploy.
But ultimately I’ve found that being candid, concise and encouraging is king and so establishing with your boss the sort of relationship that allows you the space to give them two or three short and unvarnished pointers can go a long way towards improving the outcome for everyone.
Over the 10 years I’ve spent in government I’ve worked with dozens of ministers across multiple departments. So, by way of a short disclaimer, my observations and examples throughout this piece are not about any one person. But the principals that underpin success in this role are universal and hinge on your ability to gain the trust and confidence of those that will ultimately help you win. It is, of course, easier said than done. So here are some tips from my experiences to help.
First impressions are everything
I remember the first conversation I’ve had with every politician I have press sec’d for. Your intro chat may end up being just 10 minutes. You must demonstrate in whatever time you have that you are an expert in your field and articulate how you can help them achieve their objectives. But above all else, listen to what they have to say. And respond to any points directly. What do they want to achieve? Ask around about them before you meet. Westminster is a small village. You should only be a phone call away from someone with useful intel.
Get your elbows out
You cannot influence decision-making or be of genuine use to your minister if you are not in the room in the key moments. If you sit at your desk waiting for an invite to meetings, you may as well pack up and go home. So spend time in the Private Office to build the relationships that help cement you as an integral part of the conversation.
Be flexible to their way of working
One minister I worked for would be in the office from 7am every day. That was an hour or more before the rest of their core team would arrive. I altered my working arrangements to be in early too, giving me some uninterrupted time with them to discuss emerging comms issues and plans for the coming days. That time was invaluable as it helped to build my professional relationship with them.
Be available and responsive
Being a good press sec is more than a full-time job. I have taken calls from ministers and journalists whilst navigating my two young children through a soft play centre, and separately at a school sports day as my daughter whipped past me in the 400m relay race. I’ve answered the phone and dealt with issues at 2am. A critical part of building trust with your minister is giving them the confidence that you are alive to the issues they care about and can deal with them effectively. They need to know that you have their back and are responsive. Anything less than that and you are a press secretary in name only.
Establish three comms priorities early on
The tumultuous nature of politics means issues will bubble that may make you feel like you are being blown off course. But having three clear strategic comms objectives coupled with a tactical plan to illustrate how your minister is delivering on them should be the guide rope to keeping you on track. Get these priorities agreed with your minister early on. And maintain a relentless focus on them, pulling any levers you can within the organisation to help deliver them. Ministers love delivery. So be creative in exploring how you can turn what your department might consider a minor policy milestone into a page lead for the Sun.
Be honest and understanding
Recognise the right moment for the difficult conversations. If a tricky comms handling issue needs to be unpacked with your minister, find the right moment and enough time to do it properly. Do not present comms problems to your boss without a plan for fixing them. Ministers will test your advice, it is their job to question everything. So believe in your plan and be prepared to explain why your proposal is the right one. They may disagree and direct a different course. They ultimately are the people that carry the risk. Don’t take it personally.
At times, it can be a difficult job. It will inevitably put a strain on your personal life. But done right, being a press sec will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your career…
… and certainly safer than tightrope walking.