With local elections set to take place - followed by the EU referendum in June - communications teams in councils around the country are once again working out what they can and can't do under the purdah guidelines
by David Holdstock
Ahead of last year's General Elections, we produced a guide to the publicity restrictions during the run-up to an election, and we thought it would be useful to refresh it ahead of the upcoming elections. Last year's guide was downloaded 18,000 times and counting.
The term 'purdah' describes the time immediately before elections and referendums and is one of the areas where there is the most confusion. There are many examples of advice given to councillors which is quite simply wrong. Emails to all councillors 'reminding' them that during purdah they cannot talk to the media, cannot write letters to their local newspaper or give interviews or take part in debates is both unhelpful and wrong.
This year, just to complicate things even more, there will be two purdah periods. One for local elections and PCC elections and one for the EU referendum, the second being a 28-day period of 'sensitivity'. Guidance on this second period is still being debated in central government and we'll further update the guidance once we get more details.
In the meantime, a good approach to working through the local and PCC elections is to ask yourself two questions:
1. Could anyone conclude that you were spending public money to influence the outcome of the election or referendum?
2. Would it be seen as fair and reasonable by the public and those standing for office?
Specifically, councils must not publish anything which supports or appears to support a political party or individual or, in the case of a referendum, publish anything that deals with the question to be asked or puts arguments for or against the question. In addition, you should not promote issues which are politically controversial, make references to individual politicians or groups in press releases, or arrange proactive media or events involving candidates. One area which can often catch people out is requests for council photographs or other materials, which cannot be used for campaigning purposes. The simple approach is to ask what they will be used for.
My final tip is to build good working relationships with your returning officer and your legal team.
David Holdstock is director of communications at the Local Government Association.
Picture credit: Tallahassee Democrats / Flickr