The Hodgson Review: PRs must remain vigilant

The PRCA rightly gave a "cautious welcome" to the Hodgson Review of Third Party Campaigning. There is much to welcome, but also much to worry about in its 103 pages.

Beware the erosion of free speech, warns Simon Francis
Beware the erosion of free speech, warns Simon Francis
The formal response from the PR industry body to the Hodgson Review highlighted major concerns with the implementation of the Lobbying Act, which "severely limited" charities’ campaigning activities during the 2015 general election.

In the final Hodgson report, released late last month, 70 per cent of the PRCA's recommendations were met in full or in part. 

And as the charity leaders’ network ACEVO made clear, it is vital that the Government implements the review’s recommendations.

However, everyone working in campaigning and public affairs needs to remain vigilant.

For a start, the uneven playing field, where corporates were unaware they were affected by the regulations as much as charities, will end. 

The review has accepted that more needs to be done to let company PRs know they are also under the watch of third party campaigning regulations in the future.

But the review does not go far enough to address some areas of concern – and there are new potential threats to campaigners' freedom of speech on the horizon.

Simple recommendations, such as making allowances for inflation in the spending limits or allowing pro-bono support for campaigners from marketing agencies to be classed as volunteer time, were rejected.

And there is also one worrying recommendation.

In the current legislation, only material that is directly targeted at the general public is regulated. 

However, Lord Hodgson appears to suggest that the definition of who constitutes the "general public" is revised and expanded to include "committed supporters" who may then use social media (and other channels) to spread an organisation’s message further.

This will mean more organisations may need to register as those staff costs and expenses involved in supporter communications will be counted toward the financial limits in the future.

The move will also muddy the waters for campaigners; forcing them to segment their supporters into government-defined groups. Communications with "constitutional members" and "affiliated supporters" would continue to be excluded, but other 'committed supporters' will be included in the regulations.

With this slight change, all of the good work of the review in other areas could be undone.

And while the review starts from the principle that campaigning during an election should be encouraged, there are concerns that the Government does not truly believe in freedom of speech for charities.

This is especially relevant in light of Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock's recent comments on only funding charities that do not criticise the Government.

The Government should tread very carefully if it decides to proceed in this area.

Therefore, PRs will need to remain vigilant to further restrictions on freedom of speech for campaigners created by the implementation of the Hodgson recommendations and in wider reforms to charity activity.

Simon Francis is founder member of Campaign Collective and co-chair of the PRCA’s Charity and Not-for-Profit group.

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