media skills for public servants

Media Skills for Public Servants


Written by Ben Yardley, Learning Coordinator


Few enter a career in public service because they crave the limelight. However, public servants are increasingly called upon to interact with the media as part of their roles, whether announcing a new policy, building relationships with journalists or managing a crisis after something goes wrong.

As demonstrated by the coronavirus pandemic, effective public sector communication is not just about managing the reputation of your organisation; it can be a matter of life and death.


What Challenges are faced by public servants when engaging with the media?

While reputational risk is a concern for all organisations, there are some challenges public servants face when engaging with the media that are distinct from other professions. The most significant is the duty to remain impartial and to be clear that what you say is the position of your organisation, not your personal opinion.

This is even more acute for Civil Servants, who are compelled by the Civil Service Code to remain impartial, leaving their own political beliefs aside when conducting their work. Andrew Carapiet, a former Television Producer for BBC News and Associate Trainer with Civil Service College, says “the biggest challenge facing civil servants when interacting with the media is to get the balance right between protecting the reputation of your department or organisation, while ensuring that an opportunity to promote the good work you do is maximised through positive media coverage where appropriate.”.

He adds, on the subject of what mistakes Civil Servants most often make in interviews, “The short answer is either ‘saying the wrong thing’, or fearing they will say the wrong thing and not saying anything at all. The other main fear, is the fear of being ‘misquoted’”.  While it is important to be careful about the information you give the media and how you present yourself, it is also essential not to come across as defensive as this will hold you back from building productive relationships with journalists.


How has the way Civil Servants interact with the media changed in the past decade and beyond?


The media landscape is constantly changing; it is no surprise that social media is given as much importance in public sector communication as television and print media.

The way that the public sector interacts with the media has evolved. The Government Communication Service, a part of the Cabinet Office which exists to support civil servants in their interactions with the media and to ensure consistency and transparency across government, distinguishes two types of media handling: proactive and reactive.

Whereas proactive media handling involves carefully and strategically planned placing of stories in an effort to shape the narrative, reactive media handling focuses on responding to events or crises as they occur. The rapid pace of social media means that a story can quickly spiral out of control and misinformation can spread fast. An acute awareness of both proactive and reactive media handling, and how each interacts with traditional media and social media, is essential for public servants who engage with the media as part of their work responsibilities.



How should public servants prepare for media interviews? 


Andrew says, “there is no substitute for practical experience”. Even if public servants have taken part in real-life media interviews, most often this happens infrequently and not on a regular basis.

Practising what you are going to say and seeking feedback to identify areas for improvement are valuable methods for improving your interview skills. This involves not only having a clear understanding of your own position, but also anticipating how the interviewer may respond and

It is also important to understand the media landscape and to gain a  sense of which media opportunities are worthwhile and relevant to your area of expertise. This allows for a more proactive and positive approach, helping you to see engaging with the media as an opportunity, not a pitfall.


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