A guide for those who work for an MP
Some of the guides we produce are on tasks about which your MP might not have strong views as long as they are being done. With some other tasks, your MP may have a clear view on how they are being performed. This is often based on the importance of the task, the Member’s ability to delegate and the confidence they have in you. On the subject of media relations, you know you truly have your employer’s confidence if you are given a free rein.
So, please take this guide as a helping hand on how to do things if you find you are making it up as you go along, having your employers full confidence on this very important aspect an MP’s role. If you don’t, or if your employer has difficulty letting go of this task, then it may provide pointers you can incorporate into their way of doing things if they are useful.
- Media Monitoring
(Local Press, Specialist Press, Keeping Your MP up to speed, National Press)
- Informing the Media
(Journalist contacts, The Diary, Press releases, A little bit of housekeeping for email users, Responding to Media Enquiries, Relationships with journalists, The Parliamentary Press Gallery)
- In Conclusion
First identify your local press. Which papers are free? Which are paid for? Identify even lesser known regional and sub-regional papers or those that cover only part of the constituency.
Tip – if you’re based in Westminster, keeping up with the constituency news can be tiresome, and likely to be left aside. You can combat this by setting aside an hour on a Friday afternoon to catch up with local news. Even better, you may be able to persuade constituency staff to email or send you any press cuttings they think relevant.
Identify periodicals that may be read by constituents or by professionals in an area of interest to your MP. For example, “The Voice”, “The Jewish Chronicle”, “Building Magazine” or “Taxi News”.
Once you have identified the newspapers and periodicals that are of interest, contact the news desks, explain who you are and request a subscription. In most cases, they will arrange this free of charge, but if they don’t, you need to know in advance how badly you need to be monitoring the publication. The local press will probably be vital yet some of the periodicals may be available in the Current Affairs Room of the Commons Library if you can’t swing a free subscription.
Keeping your MP up to speed
As the papers and journals arrive, look at each article and highlight for your member anything of interest; mark the appropriate pages with a post it note “bookmark” for easy reference. If you have time (or a willing intern!), you can quickly type up a single page digest to present to your MP with the marked-up paper but before you do so – look again at any article that you have not marked just to check you have not missed anything. It is particularly easy to miss “NIBS” (News In Brief items), that may be only two or three lines long.
The digest should have the name and date of the publication at the top. Tabulate the items you have highlighted in page order, with a brief description and a reference to any photographs associated with the story. Here’s an example:
Upper Shortdale Evening Echo
4th December 2008
Page Article Picture
Upper Shortdale Council scandal. Leader of Council accused of receiving bribes. Accusations denied. Headshot of Council Leader
MP visits school MP talking with children
MP supports EDM for/against/ambivalent about wind farms. No picture.
Some Members might want articles copied and annotated. Resist sticking them into a cuttings book if you can, unless you have a volunteer or an intern, because this can be an enormous waste of time. One thing you must always do if you are making cuttings or copies: always annotate the cutting with the name and date of the publication and the page on which the article is found.
It is far too time-consuming to go through the national press every day with a fine tooth comb, though you should at least flick through the broadsheets. Use Lexis Nexis – a press database on the parliamentary intranet but which is always a day behind – and http://news.google.co.uk which is less comprehensive but more up to date and also covers news on the internet. The Greater London Assembly Research Library publishes a number of subject-based extracts and a daily bulletin, which are sent out by email. Contact them at RLenquiry@london.gov.uk for more details.
So what might your Member be interested in?
- Your Member will want to see everything about himself or herself
- Anything to do with the Local Council, Health, Fire, Police or other services will probably be of interest as it could generate correspondence from constituents.
- References to the Government or to political Parties.
- Issues that could be taken up by your Member in local campaigns or in Parliament.
- Anything that could be re-formed into a written or oral Parliamentary Question.
- Anything else that you feel might interest your Member.
Informing the Media
You have identified all the publications you are monitoring. Now identify every journalist you will want to inform of your Member’s activities and include your local and regional television and radio channels. You need the following information:
- Phone Number
- Fax Number
- Email Address
- Editor’s Name
In time, you will also learn the journalists’ mobile numbers. Plug all that info into Microsoft Outlook Contacts and categorise them appropriately.
Once a week, go through your MP’s diary and list everything in the following fortnight that you would want the media to attend. Send out this schedule weekly to your target media. Your life will be easier if you send out press releases by email but make sure your local papers are receiving emails and checking them regularly. Ensure your contact details are on everything you send out. Here’s the type of info you should be sending as the diary.
Terence Footlong MP
Member of Parliament for Upper Shortdale
DateTimeEventLocationContact5thJan10amPresenting Investors in People award to Upper Shortdale High School.Upper Shortdale High School
Ivan Wessel, Headteacher
020 8555 1234
6th Jan3pmSpeech to Upper Shortdale Women’s InstituteSt Peter’s Church Hall. Priory RoadMrs Anne Gumble
WI Secretary020 8555 4321For further information:
Barbara Clodwick, Researcher – Terence Footlong MP
Tel: 020 7219 xxxx
Fax: 020 7219 xxxx
So, you know the names and email addresses of your target journalists. Now buy a digital camera if the office does not have one already. Editors, particularly on local papers, are concerned with the cost of news production. If you send a good picture with a worthwhile story, they are much more likely to print it because the “cost per column inch” is so much lower than if a journalist and photographer had found and produced the story themselves. Always remember that journalists don’t want information, they want a story. Info can pad out your press releases but, if you want to guarantee an issue makes the papers, it has to be presented as a story.
Who, what, where & when. That’s worth saying again – who, what, where & when. In the first sentence of every item in your press releases, state who did what and where and when they did it. Then provide further information and a quote. If a picture is available, state who is in it, in order from left to right.
From: CLODWICK, Barbara
Sent: 15 December 2008 13:41
To: CLODWICK, Barbara
Subject: News Release from Terence Footlong MP 15th December
2008 Young Musicians Lead Upper Shortdale’s Christmas Celebrations ***Pics Available*** Terence with Mayor Cole, Music School Head, Eric Ford and Music School singer, David Juggapah – or – Terence With Eric Ford and Leader of the Orchestra, student Parris Jones
Upper Shortdale MP Terence Footlong and his wife Clarissa joined Mayor Vanessa Cole and other local Councillors at Upper Shortdale Town Hall on 12th December for Shortdale Music School’s annual Christmas Concert.
The Programme included traditional Christmas Carols such as “Good King Wenceslas” and an original composition “Christmas Again” by John Gardner, Head of Music at Bangcroft High School
Terence said, “Once again this event was a delight – an impressive exhibition of the achievements of our young singers and instrumentalists in the Borough as we celebrate the festive season. In her speech, the Mayor said it was a West End standard of performance on an amateur stage and I wholeheartedly agree with her.”
MP visits post sorting office ***Pic Available*** Terence on the sorting line with local postman Khalid Hajware
Upper Shortdale MP Terence Footlong visited Upper Shortdale Post Sorting and Delivery Office early on 15th December to see how the Christmas rush is handled. Terence arrived at 7am to meet staff as they dealt with Christmas and other mail. Upper Shortdale is the biggest sorting office in the South East outside Central London, delivering 1.3 million items each week and up to 2m a week at Christmas.
Terence was shown the procedures for recording, sorting and delivering the post and watched his own local postman, Khalid Hajware at work preparing deliveries for his street in Shortdale.
Terence said, “I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit our busy local sorting office in Upper Shortdale to see first hand how postal workers cope with the huge amount of mail at Christmas”
Barbara Clodwick, Researcher – Terence Footlong MP
Tel: 020 7219 xxxx
Fax: 020 7219 xxxx
A little bit of housekeeping for email users
- When you email press releases, put the date in the subject field, e.g. “News Release from Terence Footlong MP 15th December 2008”. This will stop you overwriting older press releases when you move it into another folder for archiving.
- When you email press releases, blind copy the recipients. They will not want to wade through fifty names and addresses before they get to the meat and will not appreciate their email addresses being shared.
- Consider setting up contacts lists for easier distribution, perhaps ‘local media’ and ‘local & regional media’
- In the “To:” field, put your own email address. This means that if you fail to send the email, you will know because you won’t have received it.
- Set up a folder for archiving press releases. You may want to file hard copies as a precaution against IT disaster.
Responding to Media Enquiries
Sometimes journalists will call you for a quote or for information. Be nice. Be friendly. But the journalist is not your friend. Do not confide in the journalist. Be aware of which media outlets are supportive and which will try to use any comment for nefarious purposes.
There are simple rules that will limit the damage to which your Member can be exposed.
- Off the record doesn’t exist. Your comments remain off the record only while your goodwill is more valuable than the story generated by exposure of your off record comments. Tom Kelly fell foul of this when he was outed for describing David Kelly as a “Walter Mitty” character.
- Never say “no comment”. If you are declining to comment on a subject, give a full quote on why the question is inappropriate or restrict your quote to a closely related issue. Don’t be pushed to elaborate. They then can’t say your Member refused to comment, which can often look defensive and guilty.
- Always be available. If you are your Member’s de facto press officer, then you are on call at all times and journalists should have your mobile number. Always return messages promptly.
- Don’t be goaded into an immediate response. You can always say you are busy and can you call back in 5 or 10 minutes, in which time you consult the appropriate people and form your response. Always keep your promises to call back.
- Never put a journalist through to your MP without knowing what they want to talk about. Don’t be bullied – if they want access then they must treat you as a professional and with respect.
- Simple accusations often require complex rebuttals. Refine your rebuttals to a simple message, which will be easier to understand.
- Sometimes an MP will say or do something unfortunate. If this is the case then your job is to manage your employer’s expectations. If he or she is going to get a kicking in the press, let them know in advance. Don’t be tempted into thinking you can make bad things go away because of your relationships and expertise. If something needs to be taken on the chin, help your MP prepare for it.
Relationships with journalists
Don’t have intimate relations with a journalist you deal with professionally if you can help it. Think about your relationship after your intimacy is over. You can lose contacts, lose the opportunity to be introduced to other journalists and potentially get an unfortunate reputation, which can limit your networking possibilities. Your success as a Press Officer is dependent on your journalistic contacts. Invite them for drinks, dinners and lunches – but don’t get drunk. Get to know editors of local papers and arrange lunches or dinners with your MP. Just don’t break any hearts because, despite their reputation, journalists have hearts too.
The Parliamentary Press Gallery
The Press Gallery contains some of the most famous journalists in the world. Don’t get star struck – they are people who – like you – are getting on with a job. Build up your contacts organically rather than as a concerted campaign. If you find you have a story that could play well in a national paper, take an educated guess as to which paper is most likely to run with it and call them. After a while, you will start to bump into the journalists you have dealt with in the bars in and around the Palace. Don’t cold call Political Editors of national media to introduce yourself unless you are Press Officer to a Minister as they will not be interested. The only members of the Press Gallery you should cold call in this way are your relevant regional media – but beware of their deadlines. Journalists can get a bit tetchy at such times. The Press Gallery is reached on ext 4700.
This guide describes a way of doing things and many of these rules, particularly those I have stated most emphatically, I have discovered the hard way. Very soon, you will see pictures that you have taken of your MP throughout the local papers. By all means be pleased with yourself on the good days – but don’t beat yourself up on the days when things go wrong; just learn from your experience.
One other thing: remember that the allowances your MP claims are for Parliamentary duties only and are not for party political or campaigning work. More information in this W4MP guide: Guidance on the Communications Allowance and the use of House stationery.