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Alison Daniels

Digital Transformation Leader at UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Part of Digital Diplomacy

14th July 2014 London, UK

Digital switchover – why the FCO Press Office is now the Media Office

Six months ago the Foreign Office had a digital news manager responsible for publishing Foreign Office press releases and speeches on gov.uk, tweeting out our news announcements, live tweeting Ministerial speeches and statements to Parliament and commissioning multimedia like vines, video and pictures to support our messaging.

Sitting in another room was the Press Office, dealing with the relentless demands of foreign policy media work. The two would meet at a morning Press meeting and talk during the day, but the distribution of news online was a digital team task.

Of course it hadn’t passed us by that the media world is now a digital world where journalists operate across all channels because the world consumes its media at any time, on any device, and on any platform. We knew our Press Officers needed to be equally at home on twitter as drafting press lines. The 2013 Government communications capability review prompted us to move on from discussing the issue periodically, to implementing a plan to equip our Press Officers with the skills and agility needed to operate online as well as off. We also wanted to focus the digital team’s work on higher value digital policy making, campaigning and service transformation as set out in our digital strategy.

We set out some clear digital objectives for the newly named Media Office.

  • Deliver FCO press lines, briefings and rebuttal through FCO corporate social media channels and website (gov.uk)
  • Use digital tools to monitor breaking news and developments in key foreign policy areas.
  • Engage, generate and manage debate online in areas of expertise, as appropriate.
  • Create and/or commission multimedia content for social media to support messaging.

By the end of six months we aimed to have met the first two objectives and to be on a journey to achieve the second two. So have we succeeded so far? And what have we learnt?

Change takes time

The headline is we no longer have a digital news manager or a media monitor role to monitor breaking news. Media Office staff now tweet and publish news content and monitor news via a dashboard in their policy areas.

In detail, our news desk, which operates as our front line in fielding press calls, now publishes press releases and speeches on gov.uk during London hours. (Out of hours our global digital hubs lead on publishing.) All our press officers are being training to publish on gov.uk too.

But it has taken time. Changing how busy teams operate requires some trial and error and the setting up of new processes – and iterating them – to ensure digital is embedded into both thinking and delivery.

All our press officers have over a period of months had social media training, delivered by the digital team. This has included sessions on how best to use social media dashboards like Hootsuite to monitor breaking news, how to craft tweets and develop digital communications advice for Ministers on overseas visits.

Press officers are also being encouraged to think about content that will work online, including engaging pictures, which help deliver our messages and illustrate our work. Sharing examples of innovate digital comms and evaluating our output each week has helped to encourage a new type of creativity.

IT matters

Like other government departments our reality is that we operate in world where we need to keep our information secure. Our Media Office now has a standalone network in addition to the secure government system that restricts internet access. Overseas visits involve juggling secure phones with smartphones. Being technologically savvy is intuitive to a digital native but for others it’s been a learning curve and it has been important to make sure everyone has the support they need to get up to speed.


The process of learning news ways of working has promoted a few heated debates that other press operations may recognise:

  • The name of the new department – Press or Media?
  • The merits or otherwise of a dedicated Media Office twitter channel – how far should we segment our audiences?
  • When does a rebuttal become an unproductive online argument?

The answer to these questions is probably ‘it depends’. But what is clear is that building digital capability into our press work will make our news operation more effective and the lives of our Press Officers easier as they learn to monitor, target and evaluate. And as a Digital Transformation Unit we will move our digital transformation efforts into other areas, including those staff involved in broader communications.

2 comments on “Digital switchover – why the FCO Press Office is now the Media Office

  1. Alison

    This is an interesting post. It is a dilemma that many organisations have faced over recent years – should they maintain separate press and digital teams. My view is that a combined team makes a lot of sense. But there is a risk – good digital is not as simple as a few facebook updates or tweets.

    If I may be very honest it has had a negative impact on the FCO’s digital output. I always used the FCO as an example in my lectures. But the decline in the quality of the FCO’s twitter channel in recent weeks has been shocking, and not helped by the frankly unforgiveable absence of the new Foreign Secretary on Twitter.

    Tweets such as the those of 30 July announcing the Foreign Secretary’s are to me examples of the very worst of twitter – tweeting for the sake of it.

    Twitter needs to point people towards content or to truly inform. The public cares little if ministers are talking to the press in Warsaw. What we need to know is what they are saying to the press.

    So while I think that this is the correct way to go I do feel that the Media team needs further training to get this right.

    1. William, thanks for your feedback. We always envisaged ongoing training for our Media Office team as part of the process of integrating digital into press work. The transition has involved staff having to learn new ways of working. Feedback like this is helpful in improving the quality of our content and the insight it provides into UK foreign policy.

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