Is purdah the signal for local authorities to stop everything?

As we move into the final couple of weeks before this year's local elections, it is perhaps timely to reflect on what purdah has meant for communicators.

Purdah does not mean local authority comms teams must down tools, says David Holdstock
Purdah does not mean local authority comms teams must down tools, says David Holdstock

As all good public sector communicators will know, 'purdah' is the word used to describe the period immediately before elections and referendums when communicators and the media need to consider what they say and how they say it during this time of heightened sensitivity.

For communicators it should mean that they need to ensure that nothing they communicate is or could be perceived as supporting a particular party or candidate.

For the media, even-handedness is the key to ensuring that all candidates get fair recognition – that’s why we often see local election stories ending with: 'For a full list of candidates, please go to our website.'

Simple enough? Well not quite.

What we often see is a complete shutdown of all communications activity. We even see regular examples of private meetings – politician-free and attended only by officers and officials – cancelled because 'we’re in purdah'.

This is overly cautious.

The ordinary functions of councils should continue, so long as certain things are in place.

A good approach is to start by asking yourself, 'Could a reasonable person conclude that you are spending public money to influence the outcome of the election?' or 'Would it be seen as fair and reasonable by the public and those standing for office?'

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.

It is also important to avoid supplying council photographs or other materials to councillors or political group staff unless you have checked that they will not be used for campaigning purposes.

Councils are allowed to publish factual information to counteract misleading or extreme material (such as racist propaganda).

In exceptional circumstances, such as to respond to an emergency situation, it may also be appropriate for a public response to be fronted by someone like the chairman or ceremonial Mayor (things are a bit different for an elected mayor) who holds a politically neutral role.

And yet, every year, we get examples of the guidance being taken to extremes.

One particularly troubling example was a note sent to every councillor 'reminding' them that during purdah they must not write any letters for publication to their local newspaper or take part in any broadcast interviews.

Clearly this is wrong if councillors are doing this in their own right as part of campaigning.

Our work with broadcasters and the print media has been helpful to highlight some of the issues the media faces during purdah.

Having received a press release, local and regional journalists asked for follow-up interviews and were told that media interviews are not allowed during purdah.

We’ve seen examples of advice to councillors prohibiting them from publicly paying tribute to a fellow councillor who died during the election campaign – a simple way around this would be to get a tribute from all the local, party leaders.

As we get to the end of this year’s local elections, I expect to get more examples.

One simple test for just how much of an issue this can be is the number of times our own guidance is downloaded.

Last year it was downloaded more than 18,000 times.

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

Even taking a sensible approach does mean that during purdah there is less communications activity – a fantastic opportunity to plan for the new comms season after May.

David Holstock is director of comms at the Local Government Association


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