By Dunstan Hadley

26 Jun 2015

Fretting about tomorrow’s front pages, dealing with Downing Street, and letting the policy team down gently – former press officer Dunstan Hadley reveals what it’s really like working in government comms

There is probably only one civil service job where you can find yourself brushing dandruff off a minister’s shoulders or telling them their Wikipedia page has been tampered with and now claims they’ve got some decidedly dodgy hobbies. 

Government press officers do a job that’s at times surreal, often stressful, but also exhilarating. You can brief a story that leads national news bulletins. Your lines appear on the front pages and you get to race around TV studios meeting interesting people and going on fascinating visits.

More civil servants should do it, even if only for a short time. It gives you a different perspective on policies and gives you a really great bullshit detector – just as long as you remember some eternal press office truths...

At some point you will have an awful day on duty

On a busy day in press office there may be 20 or more press officers fielding hundreds of calls and briefing half a dozen news stories. They’re supported by officials, special advisers and the whole government machine. 

And then suddenly, at about 7pm every night, a solitary duty press officer is left in charge. If you’re lucky it’s incident free. On other days, particularly at weekends, it can be a total nightmare – usually kicked off with this message: “DUTY PRESS OFFICER PLS CALL MAIL ON SUNDAY ASAP”. 

From that moment your day descends into a living hell that will include a good dose of screaming at your useless, ancient IT; fielding non-stop calls from journalists; dealing with Number 10 (“what are your lines? We’ll need something for the lobby briefing tomorrow”); phoning officials – who are always at an important family gathering when you call; and getting bossed around by frantic special advisers.

I know some colleagues who, on a busy duty shift, got out of bed at 6.30am and were still in their pyjamas at midnight having not moved from their computer all day. And your house starts to resemble a Curry’s store with radio and TV on two laptops, a pager, a Blackberry, and your mobile on the go, as well.

You will get the front-page fear

One day a journalist will call with an innocuous sounding question. After a bit of investigation you realise that they’re on to a policy cock-up and you do your best to play down the story. “This is old news, The Times did it last year” or “We’re not hiding it, it was in the stats released last week” (sub-text: “which you’ll never find on GOV.UK”). Later you might get more desperate, finding yourself saying “it’s actually a sign of the success of the policy”, before eventually sending a quote. 

You alert the duty press officer and special advisers, trying to sound confident that it’s sorted. In reality you’re completely terrified. You head home feeling anxious, don’t eat dinner and obsess about how big the story is going to be. You spend the whole evening on Twitter looking at Nick Sutton’s timeline and refreshing the paper’s website to see if it’s the splash (and hoping some other big story is going to break). The relief when it’s not is quite liberating but that awful four or five hours is the front-page fear.

You will exaggerate the success of your stories

All press officers do this in an attempt to convince colleagues that the slightly rubbish policy they’ve been flogging to hacks is getting some coverage. Techniques include:

  • Sending round copy from trade or sector papers to make it look like your story is getting lots of coverage and “creating a buzz”. If a local paper has used the Press Association copy you boldly claim it’s getting regional coverage too.
  • Getting the department’s multimedia team to bring a camera along on a visit so it looks like some photographers have turned up. 
  • Packing the audience for a ministerial speech with policy officials, press office colleagues and anyone else who foolishly walks past. 
  • Getting the social media team to tweet your story and then retweeting it yourself. The moment anyone else retweets it, even if they have six followers, you boldly claim it’s “really taking off on our social channels”.

You will go on hazardous ministerial visits

Ministerial visits are fraught with danger and need careful planning. School visits are particularly lethal. Pupils pull faces, are prone to look bored and are always only moments away from asking unpredictable questions. 

It gets worse if the minister attempts to play sport in the school gym in their suit. With the exception of Obama shooting hoops or Blair doing those headers with Keegan, sports shots always look terrible and the press officer will get the blame. 

Visits also create an opening for being doorstepped. I remember as a new press officer being rather pleased, if a little surprised, to see the BBC had sent a team to cover quite a minor policy launch. Little did I realise it was the legendary Paul “Gobby” Lambert who made our life hell for the next hour. After pursuing us round the school, asking awful questions about a completely unrelated news story and creating havoc, he grinned and offered me a lift back to Westminster. 

You’ll have to deal with leaks

Genuine leaks from inside a department are awful and hit hard in a press office. They generate work and erode trust. A great privilege of press office is working closely with ministers and special advisers. You get to know them and like them, but leaks can shatter that rapport. 

Despite having the most to lose, press officers are always under suspicion when a leak occurs. Perhaps leaks are the reason that trust is sometimes lacking between press office and policy teams – meaning…

You will argue with policy teams

“Don’t trust your policy officials – they’re lying to you.” So said a former government communicator just before I started in press office. This was news to me, especially as I was still one of those “lying policy officials”. 

There is always tension between press officers and policy teams. The former want news hooks for stories and pithy rebuttal lines. The latter deal in detail, nuance and long-term strategic planning. They’re both right – which is why they fight their corner. 

Sometimes press officers want to do a story with a bit of policy that’s in early stages. Policy teams will push back and can often kill it by saying “we just can’t get the data you need, it’s impossible to pull together, it doesn’t exist”. The defeated press officer will skulk back to their desk. Two weeks later in a ministerial meeting the minister will ask for the same set of data. Just as the press officer is about to say it’s not available, the policy lead will say: “Yes, we’ll get it sent up later today”. At that moment a little bit of the press officer dies. 

It works both ways, though. Policy colleagues will be really keen for press office to promote a really dull policy and the press officer has to say no. That’s not to say it might not be a really important piece of work but it’s just not very newsy. It can be tough when you try and say this diplomatically and the policy team keep coming back for more, convinced that the outside world are desperate to hear about what they’ve been working on for the last few months. In the end you find yourself saying, “Look, I just don’t think Sky are interested in our consultation on a new legal framework for local commissioning. In fact, no one is interested in commissioning – ever.”

You will have to deal with Number 10

Press officers deal with Number 10 on a daily basis and it’s usually very constructive. 

And then there’s the awful moment – when the Christmas or summer break are within reach – when a colleague yells across the office: “Number 10 want recess stories”. Everyone groans, and then you say: “Oh, I’ve got a really nice thing on local commissioning frameworks…”

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