Publicity and communications during the pre-election period

Written by Lilian Smit

Most organisations in, or supplying to, the public sector have been left disgruntled when the press release or big announcement they have been painstakingly preparing for the last month has to be put on hold for the pre-election period (sometimes also known as Purdah.) Whilst many are aware that this is because public communications need to be restricted whilst the Government and the Opposition go out to campaign, they may not be aware of the finer details of what can and cannot be said during this time, and some organisations may be left thinking ‘do these rules really apply to us?’ With the UK once again heading to the polls, for our second early general election of the last half decade, we currently find ourselves in another pre-election period as of November the 6th. What is the pre-election period and what does it mean? The pre-election period isn’t just limited to general elections. It is put in place before any election in the UK, including local elections, to ensure that communications do not negatively or positively affect the campaigning of any party vying for leadership. If you are planning to put out any communications related to the public sector during this period, the first question you must ask yourself is ‘could a reasonable person conclude that you were spending public money to influence the outcome of the election?’ If the answer is yes, it’s worth holding off until the period has passed. Essentially, as the Local Government Association outlines: “You must always be guided by the principle of fairness. It is crucial that any decision you take would be seen as fair and reasonably to the public and those standing for office.” Is my organisation affected and why? Any organisation funded by public money is affected. This particularly relates to the undertaking of any big transformation projects, because in relation to the point on fairness above, any reasonable person could jump to the conclusion that the organisation was announcing spend to boost support for the Government, and civil servants are required to remain impartial unless they are themselves campaigning for a leadership position. This relates to all Government departments, local and central, but in some cases organisations in the NHS and the education sector may be affected, especially when it comes to discussing budgets. It can also affect vendors who supply to the public sector if they are planning any communications, such as press releases or blogs, relating to work with their public sector customers. They could find their efforts blocked by customers at the sign off process until the pre-election period has passed, and as a result it’s key to check in with them before seeking approval to see what they will allow during this phase. When will things go back to normal?   As soon as the results of the election are announced, communications can resume as normal, although you may be fighting against the noise of every other organisation trying to get news out as soon as the restrictions are lifted. We expect to see the current pre-election period end with the vote commencing on the 12th of December. If you’re still in doubt about what your organisation can and cannot say during the pre-election period, the Local Government Association has some further guidelines here.

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