New publicity code for local government

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Last Friday marked the introduction of the new publicity code for local government that applies to all councils in England.

I blogged about the consultation for the code six months ago and since then it’s been the subject of a select committee hearing and has made its way through the the House of Commons and House of Lords.

The code has its legal basis in the Local Government Act 1986 – section 4(1) of the act says that councils have to

to have regard to the contents of this code in coming to any decision on publicity

Later in the act publicity is defined as

any communication in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or a section of the public

In effect this means that the code applies to a wide range of publicity, communications and marketing activities that a council may choose to employ. This includes hosting material which is created by third parties – essentially clarifying that the responsibilities of the code extend to social media content that isn’t created by a council, but is displayed or hosted on a social media presence curated by the council.

The code is structured into seven principles – council publicity should:

  • be lawful
  • be cost effective
  • be objective
  • be even-handed
  • be appropriate
  • have regard to equality and diversity
  • be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity

The lawful principle basically says that any publicity has to follow the rules and laws that apply to that type of publicity, as well as the legal provisions that enable councils to use communications in the first place. A few specifics are listed, but they’re not exhaustive. For example for direct marketing activities the Data Protection Act and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations are also relevant.

Cost effectiveness is a mixed bag – covering the need to demonstrate value for money as now but also cautioning councils against recreating materials produced by other parts of the public sector unless doing so adds value or impact.

However it’s in the appropriateness principle that things start getting really prescriptive. This is where the much-trailed quarterly limit on the publishing of council newsletters, magazines and newspapers is featured. The ban on employing lobbyists and taking stands at political party conferences pops up here too.

There’s much more there too and you can read the full document here:

Publicity Code 2011

However it’s worth noting that the code isn’t legally enforceable. Section 4(1) of the Local Government Act 1986 says that coundils should “have regard to the contents of this code in coming to any decision on publicity”.

That’s different to saying they must follow the code to the letter – but equally means you must have a pretty good reason not to do so as well.

I’m not a lawyer so can’t offer any more thinking than that, but it will undoubtedly be tested by some councils in the coming years as they try to feel their way around the sensitivities in the grey areas at the fringes of the code.

As ever LGcommunications has a useful sample report for use by council comms people – it can be downloaded here.

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