Communicators working in local government will, once in a while, have to manage their way through the purdah period – which in local government is the time between a formal Notice of Election being published and the election day itself.
Purdah has never been a clearly defined concept – for either national or local elections. Deciding what it’s appropriate to communicate during purdah relies on good judgement combined with a strong working knowledge of the laws, rules and codes that are relevant to local government communications.
For councils with elections on 5 May this year, the purdah period starts tomorrow. This time around it’s a bit more complicated because of the AV referendum taking place at the same time too. And the new local government publicity code coming in as well means it’s worth anyone working in local government communications taking a bit of time to think about what purdah means to them.
LGcommunications held a useful event earlier this month that covered the purdah period – in the video below Alex Aiken, Director of Communications and Strategy at Westminster City Council, explains comprehensively the legal considerations for local government communications and about the purdah period:
In his presentation, which helpfully is available to download here, Alex summarises the key test for local government communications during purdah – “could a reasonable person conclude that you were spending public money to influence the outcomes of the election?”.
The advice from LGcommunications about the pre-election purdah period is:
- No publicity should be given to matters which are politically controversial
- The general presumption should be that no references will be made to individual politicians in press releases
- Great caution should be exercised before undertaking any significant media exercise unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election was called
- No photographs including candidates at the election should be issued
- Before any request for Council photographs and other materials are acceded to enquiries should be made as to the use to which they are to be put and an appropriate restriction on use imposed if the request is acceded to
- The position of a Civic Mayor as the figure-head of the authority is different and we can be more relaxed about issuing material relating to him provided that it is apolitical
The impact of purdah will vary in different councils. Some will choose to take a very risk-averse approach in terms of the legal provisions of purdah – which actually may cause problems in the longer term as a regaulr flow of information about services to residents and service users is important in increasing satisfaction with local government.
Other councils will take a more pragmatic view of things – looking at individual communications activities carefully and considering whether they could or should be delivered during purdah.
In my view it’s important for communicators to ensure they understand the code and are able to provide well informed advice about what can and can’t be done during the purdah period. Alex’s video presentation and slides that are linked to above are a great place to start to get a good overview of the relevant information.