Communicate with care in the run-up to elections - Julie Moulsdale

The UK is gearing up for its next set of elections where, on 5 May, voters will head to polling stations. In England, the outcome of local and mayoral elections will be decided, and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) will be elected to the Stormont. In Scotland and Wales, the make-up of councils will be determined in local elections.

Voters will go to the polls on 5 May
Voters will go to the polls on 5 May

It is around election time that our clients often seek advice on navigating the complex rules in place prior to political contests. This is known as the pre-election period, formerly called “purdah”. While some rules might seem obvious, and others are somewhat less, so any communication efforts should proceed with caution.

Every public sector organisation will likely have a rule book of their own, but the most simple way to consider communications throughout the election period is to remember that there is heightened sensitivity around whether public money could be perceived to be used in any way to influence the result of the election.

If there is a publicly funded organisation or campaign involved, then it is almost certainly best to avoid launching large-scale profile raising campaigns during this period. Similarly, careful consideration to candidate and party parity should be given in relation to any news releases or organised visits, where communications or invitations should be sent to all or none.

We have been consistently advising our clients in this pre-election period to be cautious of this heightened sensitivity, while offering them practical steps to navigate this tricky time. Even if they, or the public body they work with, have not broken any rules, the last thing they want is to be embroiled in a political row over potentially broken rules that will linger until ruled otherwise.

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This was the case last year during London’s mayoral election when Boris Johnson criticised Labour’s Sadiq Khan at a press conference at 10 Downing Street, a public platform. This led to an angry response from Labour, calls for an apology and an investigation into the apparent rules breach. Khan, who would go on to be re-elected, claimed the prime minister’s critique of a transport policy in the capital was “entirely unrelated” to the press conference or the question he was asked.

Of course, such disputes are not merely confined to the political parties. In 2017, the Public and Commercial Services Union accused HMRC of breaching rules by signing contracts in the pre-election period to move 60,000 staff to regional hubs.

If you do find some of your activities curtailed, then this time offers a great opportunity for communications planning which can be implemented post election. This is the perfect time to review communications, PR and social media strategies to ensure these are directly linked with and clearly supporting the desired organisational outcomes and are targeted at the right audiences, some of whom may change after the elections.

If there is any doubt about what can be done in this pre-election period, check the rules and consult with the relevant officials. The worst case scenario is you have to wait a couple of weeks to make your announcement. These rules apply to the work of publicly funded organisations and projects, and place no expectations on private sector organisations. However, pre-election rules can impact on business if the communication involves public organisations or public sector funding.

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The pre-election period is a precarious time for those of us involved in communications, but there is no better time to lay the foundations for effective public affairs and public relations strategies for after these council elections.

Julie Moulsdale is the managing director of Perceptive Communicators, a communications consultancy which helps clients in the built environment, science and technology sectors improve lives and transform futures.

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