Councils attack purdah code

Local government communicators have complained that guidelines on what they are allowed to do during the election purdah period are insufficient.

Greenwich: holding local elections
Greenwich: holding local elections

For most councils, the purdah period in the run up to the 6 May local elections will begin on 29 March. The rules state councils cannot use any publicity that could be construed as politically motivated.

While there are no formal guidelines, communicators use the Department of Communities and Local Government's code of recommended practice. Councils also often formulate their own purdah guidelines in-house.

Lancashire County Council head of comms and marketing Paul Masterman said: 'While useful, the code of practice is out of date. It tends to be open to interpretation and is woolly.'

Masterman added: 'There's a danger communicators can hide behind purdah rules and just close down what they're doing. A lot of decisions come down to judgement. Good communicators are making these judgements, not so good ones are hiding behind rules.'

Masterman also pointed out council comms teams needed to build strong relationships with their lawyers during this period.

Westminster City Council director of comms Alex Aiken has called for the code of recommended practice to be 'radically simplified'.

'Most councils are overly cautious because they don't understand the rules and don't get good briefings,' said Aiken.

HOW I SEE IT - Ashley Wilcox, Chair, CIPR local public services group

Purdah means council communicators need to re-prioritise work - but not stop.

It is important we keep communicating our business - telling residents how to access council services. Yes, we stop launching services and we don't quote politicians but we need to keep communicating.

However, there is a need to update the code. While it stops councils unfairly promoting one political agenda over another, there are examples during purdah when comms professionals are forced into being too cautious.

A new code that covers the new comms landscape such as social media and is clear about what can and cannot be done needs to be developed.

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