How to work with ministers and special advisers
Communication plays a major part in the role of government. Elected government has both a duty to inform and a right to be heard.
Working in government communication means that one of your most important working relationships will be with ministers and their offices. Communicators and other public resources are provided and paid for by the taxpayer to help ministers explain the government’s policies in a positive light. But they are not to be used for image-making, and departments and ministers must at all times avoid any suggestion of using public resources for political purposes. Read the full propriety guidance for government communicators and the ministerial code.
Communicators generally find working with ministers and dealing with government policies exciting and rewarding; being where it’s happening is motivating and attracts a high level of commitment. The nature of politics means that ministers take a close interest in communications, particularly in the work of the press office.
However, the key to an effective relationship is to maintain professional integrity, with commitment to the task of giving professional advice based on communications expertise and a good understanding of propriety.
Communicators in all disciplines are likely to have important relationships with ministers; these will be through written submissions as well as face-to-face meetings. Whatever communications discipline you specialise in, the following sections will help you work well with ministers:
In summary: working with ministers is an exciting and rewarding experience in which your role is to explain and defend the policies of the elected government of the day – not to engage in party politics.
Understanding ministers’ ways of working
Individual ministers have individual ways of working. Some may like discursive meetings where they can debate issues at length; others will want brief, business-like encounters. Some will want detailed submissions or briefings for interviews; others will look for short, sharp bullet points. Ministers are also likely to have preferred formats for submissions.
In all cases, look to the private office and/or your intranets for advice. Following the appointment of a minister, the private secretary will produce detailed guidance on the minister’s preferred way of working, choice of speech styles, and required formats. Keep in touch on this matter as the guidance may emerge over time.
In working with the private office, be rigorous about keeping to time any meetings that you are involved in. The private office has a major task in maintaining diaries under the huge pressure of demands on ministers’ time.
Press officers supporting ministers with media bids need to develop good understandings with the minister about how they want to handle information both before and immediately prior to the interview. Expertise in dealing with individual ministers will come with experience, but be prepared to ask at your first meeting how the minister wishes to work.
Building good relationships with private office
Getting along well with private office is a high priority for government communicators. The private office provides the first line of advice for ministers, organises their day-to-day activity and acts as the liaison between minister and department. Crucially, it is the gatekeeper for submissions and for the door to the minister’s office. Members of private office will certainly have a big part to play in the level of access you have to a minister.
At the head of the private office is the private secretary. In the secretary of state’s office this is the principal private secretary, who is usually also the senior manager for all the ministerial offices. Ministers will also have assistant private secretaries, who are likely to handle – and be experts in – specific elements of the minister’s portfolio. Also of critical importance is the diary secretary, with whom you will have to liaise to arrange time in a minister’s diary for interview bids, announcements and visits.
You need to work closely at all times with private office, meeting their deadlines for submissions, using correct formats, ensuring that you keep them fully in the loop and briefing them on any conversations you may have separately with a minister. Do not put a member of private office in the difficult position of being out of the picture on any development; they are expected to know everything that is going on.
Be confident of your role as the communications or media adviser. Members of private office are experts on the working of the department and know the detail of policy; you have the communications knowledge to help position it with key audiences, stakeholders and the media. Be confident and ensure your view gets a hearing.
One of the most useful areas of close working is over invitations and visits. Liaising early with private office ensures that a strategic approach can be taken to the acceptance of invitations and the detail of visits. Ministers receive hundreds of invitations a year to visit this factory, open that building or make a speech, and it is vital that decisions are taken in line with both the department’s and minister’s priorities. That does not always mean that decisions are media-dominated. Suggest regular meetings with the private office, during which invitations are scrutinised so that you can advise whether an invitation has communication merits.
Operating effectively with special advisers
Communicators – particularly press officers – are likely to work frequently with special advisers. Special advisers are political appointees who work personally to the Secretary of State, giving political advice on communications and policy development. In departments they are not allowed to manage a budget or civil servants.
The relationship between communicator and special adviser can be extremely productive. Special advisers give the ministers and department a political assessment and can speak to the media on political issues when a civil servant cannot. They are vital sounding boards and can influence ministers’ decisions because they have the ear and trust of the minister.
Communicators should have regular meetings with special advisers. As a policy is being developed, communicators should explain to special advisers the thinking behind audiences and channels of communications; press offices should hold regular catch-up meetings to consider media handling. Some departments find it useful to invite special advisers to morning press cuttings meetings.
Good relations with special advisers are firmly grounded in the mutual understanding of the rules that set out what the different players can and cannot do, and what they should not be asked or persuaded to do. Press officers often find themselves working closely with special advisers, but they should be mindful that they are not their line managers and should refer any difficulties to their head of news.
For further information, please refer to the Code of conduct for special advisers.
How to work with ministers and special advisers – in full [PDF, 31KB, 3 pages]