Don't use law as 'convenient cloak' to stop staff getting involved in general election

PR firms should encourage staff to be involved in the general election campaign because it is "a great way to develop skills" - with one public affairs professional arguing that firms should not hide behind laws under which this may sometimes count as a political donation.

(Credit: tmcphotos/Shutterstock)
(Credit: tmcphotos/Shutterstock)

Several agencies have said that political campaign work is a valuable experience for PR and public affairs staff.

Jon McLeod, chair of financial and public affairs at Weber Shandwick, welcomed the prospect of staff being politically active - but warned that agencies should be wary of having too many staff showing particular allegiances.

McLeod said: "As long as they aren’t all campaigning for UKIP or the English Defence League, then if staff are doing this in their own time I think firms should look positively at this, because it’s all very well launching a website or writing a briefing paper, but to persuade a member of the public on a political issue is a great test for any budding consultant.

However, he warned that firms "need to be very careful" about staff having paid time off to campaign, saying that this would qualify as a political donation.

Legal issues

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission told PRWeek that an employee who campaigns during annual or unpaid leave or outside of working hours, is considered a volunteer under legislation.

However, if a firm grants a staff member a secondment to a regulated party, that is considered a donation in kind, the spokesman said. He also said it was the duty of the party receiving that donation to record it, rather than the donor company, or the individual.

There is no guidance for employers specifically, but the spokesman pointed PRWeek to its overview of party campaign spending document.

A spokesman for WPP suggested that the group would keep a close eye on such regulation - with internal rules also coming in to play. He said: "We would not, of course, seek to prevent employees from campaigning in a private capacity and, in countries where it is consistent with applicable law, individuals working at WPP companies are free to make personal voluntary political contributions. We do have very strict rules on corporate political contributions, as laid out in our policy book and sustainability report."

The legal aspect of the 'working hours' question, and the implications for PR employers, is somewhat clouded by the rise of flexible working.

Weber's McLeod said: "I think the point of flexible working is that the person has to fulfill their contractual obligations - so if someone leaves early to go campaigning, I’d expect them to be in early that day or the next day."

The legal position is complicated further for employees of a charity. Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and comms at the Charity Commission, said that charity staff can have "personal involvement" with a party but "cannot use their position... to suggest that the charity endorses a party or candidate", and that employees should declare political activity to their employer.

Atkinson also pointed to guidance from the commission, and said: "The trustees of the charity should consider if the employee’s involvement poses a potential conflict of interest or a risk to the charity’s reputation, and act in the best interest of the charity."

'Embrace it'

Alex Deane, head of UK public affairs at FTI Consulting, who is a former local councillor and took time off to campaign for Brexit group Grassroots Out last year, said that being part of political processes should be a given in his specialism, and said he was "relaxed" on the matter.

"Good public affairs consultants are not political observers - we are political participants, who gain an aspect of our credibility from involvement in the process, rather than just dry academic speculation. Anyone hiring PA practitioners should therefore expect them to be politically active and should indeed embrace it," he said.

Deane also expressed scepticism toward agencies concerned about rules around donations, saying: "Perhaps some who express concerns to PRWeek about donations are using this concern as a convenient cloak over their desire to chain their employees to their desks during this vital time, rather than trusting them to deliver for clients whilst taking part in this seismic event."

Ben Caspersz, founder of Claremont Communications, said: "We actively encourage Claremont’s staff to get involved in campaigns that matter to them. It’s a great way for them to develop their skills and contacts. Sometimes we make Claremont’s networks and resources available to help them.

"In general, I'm all for it. In the last election we had a former colleague who stood for election as an MP and a couple of the Claremont team were given extra time off to support her campaign."

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