No Malcolm Tucker moments for Sam Lister in the thick of health comms

Unlike the foul-mouthed character in the BBC sitcom, the DH's comms director is very cool in a crisis, finds Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou- Smith.

Open and honest:  Sam Lister says the government needs to be transparent and honest
Open and honest: Sam Lister says the government needs to be transparent and honest

The path from hack to flack may be well trodden, but there is one cliche Sam Lister is determined not to live up to.

'Everyone thinks you're going to have this throbbing vein in your neck,' the Department of Health's director of comms says before insisting that his life in the civil service bears no resemblance to TV sitcom The Thick of It.

He admits that seeing former health secretary Andrew Lansley harangued outside the gates to 10 Downing Street by a 75-year-old woman protester, who accused Lansley of talking 'codswallop', gave him a slight sense of foreboding, but he promises there have been no Malcolm Tucker moments since.

In reality, Lister, 37, could not be further from the series' foul- mouthed spin doctor. He is calm, considered, genuinely modest and appears completely unfazed by his leap from an 11-year career in journalism at The Times to one of the biggest comms director roles in Whitehall.

On any given day, up to three of the nation's top stories typically involve the Department of Health, which fields upwards of 1,000 media calls a week.

'Whether it is a new health outbreak or hospital issue, it doesn't wait for a nine-to-five window - it just happens,' he explains.

On the day of the interview, he is dealing with the Mid Staffs criminal investigation, the ongoing measles outbreak and the NHS 111 helpline fiasco, to name but a few issues. Lister's wife Jessica Carsen, also a former journalist, is director of editorial comms at The Times, and Lister quips that between them they are often responsible for the top two items on the news bulletins.

There is little doubt that Lister has one of the industry's toughest comms jobs at a level of seniority rare for journalists first crossing the dividing line.

Health and social care is one of the most complicated and emotionally charged areas in government, he acknowledges.

He says the NHS is a politically freighted service going through the biggest structural reforms in decades.

As health editor at The Times, Lister watched from the media front line as the 'noisy' comms handling of the Health and Social Care Bill unfolded. 'The problem was there was far too much talk about the mechanics of the new system,' he contends. 'The benefits this was going to bring for the 50 million-plus people that use the health service was what needed to be talked about. If you start talking about the wiring, you've lost them.'

Mark Henderson, a former Times colleague and now head of comms at the Wellcome Trust, observes that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's strategy on Mid Staffs has all the hallmarks of Lister thinking through how the media work. 'Aside from being enormously good fun, he is extremely thoughtful about other people's work,as well as his own,' says Henderson.

Indeed, Lister is keen to emphasise the quality of work from his comms team during the past 18 months under a level of pressure often unmatched around Whitehall. So how has he managed to keep his head above water?

'One of the most crucial things about my job is being able to prioritise effectively, to identify what are the big issues of the day and what resonates most with the people and key organisations with whom you want to engage,' he says.

It is an invaluable skill he learned at The Times and highlights its importance while giving clarity and leadership when there is so much media interrogation of the issues, and the pressure is on. But it does not stop there. 'The Department of Health needs to be strategic and proactive. It must always be on the front foot,' argues Lister.

'If a hospital has an issue, there's no point in waiting until it surfaces in the media. We have got to be transparent and honest with the public. You can't hide stuff and hope that nobody notices,' he adds decisively.

It was the lack of strategy that frustrated Lister about newspapers. In the civil service, he can plan where his department wants to be in six months to two years' time, whereas newspapers can only plan as far as where they will be the next day or, if they are lucky, the next week.

Outside of his day job, he is careful not to ruffle feathers, noting he never tells those working in the health service of his role.

A couple of weeks ago Lister and his wife took their son to the Royal London Hospital, but he gave his feedback through the electronic forms dotted around the wards, rather than face to face. 'They have more important things to deal with than me badgering them,' he says.

It seems safe to assume someone truly in the Malcolm Tucker mould would have favoured a far different approach.

CV

2011 Director of comms, Department of Health

2009 Health editor, The Times

2006 Assistant news editor, The Times

2004 Health correspondent, The Times

2002 Scotland correspondent; home news correspondent, The Times

2000 Graduate trainee, The Times

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Being able to join The Times as a graduate trainee shortly before the doors started to close on trainee schemes across Fleet Street. The Times worked very hard to keep its scheme going and it gave me a great grounding in journalism.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Nigel Hawkes, the former Times health editor, for his brilliantly acerbic advice. He believed that half the job of health reporting was keeping rubbish out of newspapers. Anna McKane at City University, who ensured her students had a thick skin for the ups and downs of media; James Harding, the former editor of The Times, for his energy and integrity - a class act at motivating and leading people - and Hugh Taylor, the former permanent secretary of the Department of Health, for some invaluable insights into my move to comms and then the civil service.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Do not try to blag the detail. Always remember: a slapdash reputation can stick.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Commitment, remaining calm under pressure and good humour.

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