Alex Aiken: purdah shouldn't stop business

Next week is likely to see the Prime Minister call the most important general election since 1997. It will be a seminal election for public services and that means that communicators need to help inform the debate and quickly shape the views of those elected.

Alex Aiken: comms role in election
Alex Aiken: comms role in election

The election is particularly significant as the new Parliament will be a radically different place from the old one. Over 130 MPs are committed to standing down and many other seats are likely to change hands. As PRWeek has shown, we are likely to see an increase in the number of public relations professionals entering parliament and perhaps government.  And these novice MPs will have to grapple with the triple challenges of troubled public finances, war and security and the challenge to social cohesion from the recession and the threat of extremism.

Good public relations can make a strong contribution to at least two of these areas and probably help in the third.

As the newly published LGcommunications report into local government reputation shows, public relations managers need to understand and shape the policy debates to be credible. In town halls and Whitehall discussions are taking place today about how to cut or rationalise public services. Communicators need to contribute to those discussions, setting out to handle public expectations, using opinion data to assess the impact on service and corporate reputation and engage the public in understanding that public service provision will have to change. Rather than being seen as an overhead, we need to be part of the strategy to renew public services.

The war in Afghanistan and the security challenge is an area where we can have least impact. However, there are some specific areas where we can play a positive role. Continued readiness in terms of contingency and emergency planning should be an area where PR teams plan and practice. And we should also be at the forefront of providing support for our armed forces, particularly facilitating community understanding of their work, and though this is controversial in the education world, highlighting the job opportunities that exist to young people considering their options through partnership campaigns with the services.

Over the last parliament the CLG and other government departments have quietly but effectively gone about the painstaking work of supporting local authorities improve community cohesion. Many local authorities have done highly effective work in this area – Burnley’s Breaking Barriers programme and Tower Hamlets RESOLVE project being two examples. But the forthcoming election has the potential to reignite debates that may divide communities. There is little we can or should do about the political debate, but effective campaigns to draw communities together, by championing voluntary effort, celebrating local champions and training the leaders of tomorrow should be part of the PR plan for immediately after the election.

Communicators often believe that elections are a time of limited activity because of the rules around publicity during the election period. This approach is mistaken, the desire to generate publicity should not be confused with the more important roles of planning, evaluating and designing strategy for public services in the new Parliament. This must be the main focus of the next few weeks. More practically local authorities should be briefing all parliamentary candidates on the concerns of their area, preparing them for the realities of office and heads of PR should be ready to welcome and serve newly elected council leaders and other elected representatives in the early hours of Friday 7 May.

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