chuck norris and pre-election survival tips for comms people

If there's an election coming and you work in local government - or elsewhere in the public sector - here's what you need to do. Quick.

by Dan Slee

Every year the swallows who nest in the eves of our house head off back on a flight that lasts thousands of miles.

Nobody tells them to do it, but off they head travelling 200 miles a day with just the urge to head south.

Swallows, ladies and gentlemen, are rather like politicians.

At some point the beacon of the election pings and they start changing behaviour. The normally relaxed cabinet member starts to behave differently. Requests for coverage become more pressing. There can be the photo requests, the press releases and the subtle pressure can sometimes begin.

By subtle pressure, I mean the request to maybe send across that stock pic. Or maybe the request for a quote that damns a different parties’ policies. In short, the local government comms team can risk being ‘leaned on.’

It doesn’t happen everywhere of course. Sometimes it’s an innocent question asking to help them out.

Q – That stock picture of the town hall. Can you send it across? The printers are waiting for it. 

A – It may only be a stock picture of a town hall but if public money paid for it it can’t be used for political purposes.

Q – That quote in the cabinet members’ statement? He wants it changed so he can attack the Prime Minister.

A – It may only be a quote but you shouldn’t be allowing political comments into content you are issuing.

There is so much more to comms than Purdah. That’s the period where it is acknowledged that politicians can’t be quoted. Knowing what you can and can’t say and do is just common sense.

You can have a row very easily. But what you need close at hand is the chapter and verse of what you can do and say before it escalates.

As the comms visionary Chuck Norris once said, men are like steel. When they lose their temper they lose their worth. So don’t lose your temper or get the politician to lose theirs. Have a list to hand of what you can do and say and make sure your team know too.

Remind yourself of what you can and can’t say and do…

It’s an uncomfortable time of year and there are steps that every head of comms, comms manager, press officer, web officer and marketing assistant needs to know about. Make a list of exactly what document says what so when challenged they can quote it.

One of the best afternoons in my career was spent going through a sheaf of documents that governed my job. What was in that sheaf? The authority’s constitution, the DCLG recommended code of practice for local government publicity and the media protocols. The Holy Trinity of local government comms documents. By all means start off with the media protocols, but people will argue the toss. A few people may mess with the DCLG. You’ll find very few people mess with the council’s constitution.

The DCLG recommended code of practice for local government publicity

Contrary to myth, comms teams do not work for the Leader or the administration. They work for the Chief Executive and the authority. The comms team that forgets that is likely to land up in trouble.

Councils are required by legislation to consider the code of practice before they make decisions. You can download it here.

Here’s a couple of keepers:

19. Where local authority publicity addresses matters of political controversy it should seek to present the different positions in relation to the issue in question in a fair manner

34. During the period between the notice of an election and the election itself, local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any individual members or groups of members. Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published by local authorities during this period unless expressly authorised by or under statute. It is permissible for local authorities to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.

The media protocols

This document will set out what you do and don’t do. Know what it says. Make sure your team knows what it says. In all likelihood, this document will have been worked out in advance and possibly when an administration is incoming. This gets them signed-up in peacetime to the governance of the comms unit.

Why the constitution is like Chuck Norris

It’s difficult to describe the reverential awe that the constitution has in the place of local government. When faced with the constitution they ususally don’t argue.

What is great about the constitution is that it governs the behaviour of the officer and politician relationship. It may mention that undue pressure may not be put on officers. It may also refer to bullying, intimidation and a list of other things you’ll probably never need but it’s useful to have at your finger tips.

Like Chuck Norris, nobody messes with the Constitution. If they do, there’s a chance they’ll come a cropper.

Professional standards

Often the Constitution will point to professional standards being standards to be observed. There are three for comms teams. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the National Union of Journalists and the Public Relations Consultants Association.

Will the constitution insist you belong to them? Take a look and I’ll bet it’s not vital although I’d suggest you do.

You’ve read all this, what next?

Put the salient points and the sections they come from onto one side of A4. Two at most. Get your legal team to add their name to it to give it an added layer of Teflon.

If you work in the public sector, you’ll have your own guidance, constitution and approaches. But the principles remain the same. It’s best to be independant as a public servant rather than partizan. And as housing, the NHS and the work of government gets more politically charged its useful to know where you stand.

It’s also good to know what you can and can’t say and do. That’s worth knowing all the year round.

Dan Slee is co-creator of comms2point0.