Exclusive: DfID head of media departs for top UN comms role

Zoe Paxton, head of media at the Department for International Development (DfID) and a rising star in the Government Communication Service, is leaving for a top comms job at the United Nations, PRWeek can reveal.

Zoe Paxton is leaving her job as head of media at DfID to work at the United Nations

Paxton is leaving the UK for New York, where she will be the chief of media relations at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and spokesperson for the organisation’s under-secretary-general, Sir Mark Lowcock.

OCHA is one of the world’s biggest relief organisations, with 30 offices worldwide and more than 2,200 staff. In 2018 it mobilised more than $15bn for response efforts that it co-ordinated to help more than 100 million people globally.

In her new role, which starts in November, Paxton will be reunited with Sir Mark, who was DfID permanent secretary before he joined OCHA in late 2017.

She will oversee Sir Mark’s external comms and media relations, leading and directing a global team of public information officers, and conduct political liaison work on his behalf. The role had previously been covered by Russell Geekie.

In August, the United Nations appointed Melissa Fleming from UNHCR as its new under-secretary-general for global communications.

Wider ambition

Paxton told PRWeek of her aim to "help carve out a media platform" for Sir Mark "to articulate the world’s most pressing humanitarian needs and drive global action".

This will involve placing people and individual human stories at the heart of the organisation’s comms, as "people relate to people".

Paxton added that she will use the media to help "open up the organisation" and spoke of her belief in having clear and accessible comms. "I believe in the power of plain English," she said.

Her new role will also "help provide a link between the UN and the UK Government and make the UN relevant to a UK as well as an international audience".

Route to the top

A trained journalist, Paxton started out as an editorial assistant at the Financial Times before moving on to write book reviews and author interviews at The Times.

In 2007 she switched to comms, taking a job as a press officer at the Home Office, where she spent five years before moving to the Cabinet Office, spending a year there as chief press officer.

She joined DfID as deputy head of news in 2013, rising to become head of news and press secretary to the international development secretary. She was promoted to head of media at DfID in 2017.

Civil Service culture

Paxton paid tribute to her colleagues: "A decade working in top Whitehall comms teams has left me in no doubt that the government communications profession – and the UK Civil Service more broadly – is the best in the world."

She added: "There’s lots I will miss about working in government, but right now I am excited to be broadening my horizons. And when I arrive at the UN I am determined to bring with me some of the integrity, commitment and drive that characterises the UK Civil Service."

Commenting on the logistics of relocating her family for the new job, Paxton said: "I’ve got a three-year-old and a one-year-old, so it should be relatively easy. They’re generally up for everything, and they’re still small enough to be scooped up and put into a new environment without too much trouble – I hope!"


Paxton leaves her role at DfID at the end of this month.

Tim Singleton, director of comms at DfID, said of her departure: "She has a hard-won reputation for being one of HMG’s best media operators, with huge knowledge of her subject. She now has the chance to use her skills on the UN stage. We will, of course, keep closely in touch with Zoe, and look forward to welcoming her back to Government in due course."

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