Government comms pros warned on purdah during run-up to assembly elections

Government comms teams are to refrain from doing anything that could lead to them being accused of interfering with the democratic process in the weeks leading up to the Northern Ireland Assembly elections next month.

Government comms professionals have been warned to be mindful of purdah in the lead up to elections
Government comms professionals have been warned to be mindful of purdah in the lead up to elections
The elections were prompted by the shock resignation of Martin McGuinness last month, when the deputy first minister quit in protest at the Democratic Unionist Party’s handling of a green energy scheme that could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.

Strict rules, known as purdah, restricting the activities of civil servants, recently came into force and will remain in place until after the elections are held on 2 March.

The new guidance for civil servants was first issued by the Cabinet Office and Northern Ireland Office late last month. 

It has since been posted on the Government Communication Service’s website and Alex Aiken, executive director of government communications, recently flagged it up in a tweet to his 5,000 Twitter followers.

People working in government are "not to undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality. It is important to remember that this applies to online communication, for example social media, as well as off-line activity," according to the guidance.

It states that "departments should avoid taking action that will compete with candidates for the attention of the public," and "special care should be taken in respect of paid publicity campaigns and to ensure that publicity is not open to the criticism that it is being undertaken for party political purposes."

Government comms professionals are reminded to take special care "around press and marketing activity concerning Northern Ireland issues." 
They are also informed: "It is also important to take care with official websites and use of social media that will be scrutinised closely by the news media and the political parties during the election period."

Meanwhile, a senior comms figure at the Northern Ireland Executive is to leave his post just months after being appointed in controversial circumstances. 

Former BBC journalist David Gordon was given the job of press secretary to the Executive Office last September, amid criticism over the fact that the job had not been advertised. 

Writing on his Facebook page last week, he said: "Losing my job in a few weeks. But [Manchester] City are up to third and Kylie is single again. Swings and roundabouts."

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