Purdah guide shows that council comms chiefs can be political, just not party political

One of the most eagerly anticipated pieces of work that we produce at the LGA is our annual guide to communicating during the pre-election period - or 'purdah' as it is more commonly known.

The need for a 'purdah' guide is obvious, given the level of confusion among councils, says David Holdstock
The need for a 'purdah' guide is obvious, given the level of confusion among councils, says David Holdstock

The interest reaches such proportions, and is growing year-on-year, that last year it was downloaded more than 18,000 times. That’s more than 50 downloads for every council in England.

While it’s obviously reassuring that we’re providing information and guidance that councils are finding useful, at the same time it is worrying that there appears to be a lack of clarity across both local and central government about what we as communicators can and can’t do during the pre-election period.

This is something we’re looking at with Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Communications for the Government Communications Service.

Read next: Alex Aiken – be brave in developing a strategy to change behaviour for the public good

The first really big issue for me is the number of times as communications professionals we are told, "you must not be political".

I have always taken the view that you cannot work in local government communications and not 'be political'. What we can't be, though, is 'party political'.

It is absolutely clear that our role is to help explain and promote the work of our council, this will include the policies of the administration, whatever their team colours.

Another common misconception is that during the pre-election period, all communications activity has to shut down completely.

Yes, particular care must be taken in the way communications teams operate during purdah, as many council communicators will know, but it’s certainly not the case that work has to stop completely.

The ordinary functions of councils should, and must, continue, so long as certain restrictions are followed.

The key issue is that councils must not publish anything that 'supports or appears to support a political party or individual'.

A good rule of thumb, as is often the case for communicators, is to apply the reasonableness test. Could the person in the Dog and Duck conclude that your actions are reasonable and fair?

Could they form the view that you are spending public money to influence the outcome of the election?

If the answer is 'yes' it’s reasonable and 'no', you’re not using public money to influence the election, you should be fine.

In general, this means councils should not produce publicity on issues that are politically controversial, make references to individual politicians or groups in press releases, or arrange proactive media or events involving candidates.

So why should we worry or even produce such guidance?

Over the years I’ve heard some frankly bizarre, but also worrying, examples of advice given by communications professionals to their politicians.

One such example is a letter, sent to all councillors advising that during the purdah period, councillors must not give any media interviews or write letters for publication to their local newspapers.

This is clearly wrong, given that these very councillors will be in the middle of an election campaign and doing everything possible to raise their profile with the public.

There is nothing wrong with councillors campaigning, as long as they are not using council resources to do so.

Another example, raised by the BBC, relates to a council that sent out a press release to its local and regional media.

When the journalist called the press office back to say they were very interested in running the story they were told "Sorry, because of purdah, we can’t offer anyone for interview".

Both examples show that we’ve got a bit of work to do to be consistent and that an immediate "no" might not be the right answer.

In my experience, a common-sense, pragmatic approach works well, and if you are even-handed in your advice, no one can criticise you.

David Holdstock is director of comms at the Local Government Association

• Click here to subscribe to the new FREE public sector bulletin to receive dedicated public sector news, features and comment straight to your inbox.
If you wish to submit a news, comment, case study or analysis idea for the new public sector bulletin, please email Ian.Griggs@haymarket.com

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in