What you should and shouldn't do during the pre-election period
Publicity is defined as “any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public.”
The first question to ask is: ‘could a reasonable person conclude that you were spending public money to influence the outcome of the election?’ In other words it must pass the ‘is it reasonable’ test. When making your decision, you should consider the following:
What you shouldn't do
- Produce publicity on matters which are politically controversial
- Make references to individual politicians or groups in press releases
- Arrange proactive media or events involving candidates
- Issue photographs which include candidates
- Supply council photographs or other materials to councillors or political group staff unless you have verified that they will not be used for campaigning purposes
- Continue hosting third party blogs or e-communications
- Help with national political visits, as this would involve using public money to support a particular candidate or party. These should be organised by political parties with no cost or resource implications for the council.
What you need to think carefully about
You should think carefully before you:
- continue to run campaign material to support your own local campaigns. If the campaign is already running and is non-controversial - for example, on issues like recycling or foster care - and would be a waste of public money to cancel or postpone them, then continue. However, you should always think carefully if a campaign could be deemed likely to influence the outcome of the election and you should not use councillors in press releases and events in pre-election periods. In such cases you should stop or defer them. An example might be a campaign on an issue which has been subject of local political debate and/or disagreement.
- launch any new consultations. Unless it is a statutory duty, don’t start any new consultations or publish report findings from consultation exercises, which could be politically sensitive.
What you're allowed to do
- Continue to discharge normal council business - including determining planning applications, even if they are controversial.
- Publish factual information to counteract misleading, controversial or extreme - for example, racist/sexist information. An example might be a media story which is critical of the council, such as a media enquiry claiming that the salaries of all the council’s senior managers have increased by five per cent. If this is not true, a response such as ‘none of the council’s senior management team have received any increase in salary in the last 12 months’ is acceptable. It is perfectly right and proper that the council responds, as long as it is factual.
- Use relevant lead officers rather than members for reactive media releases.
- Use a politician who is involved in an election when the council is required to respond in particular circumstances, such as in an emergency situation or where there is a genuine need for a member-level response to an important event beyond the council’s control. Normally this would be the civic mayor - as opposed to the elected mayor in those areas with elected mayors - or chairman, that is, someone holding a politically neutral role. If the issue is so serious, it is worth considering asking the council’s group leaders to agree to a response which would involve all of them.
- If you are in any doubt, seek advice from your returning officer and/or monitoring officer, legal or communications colleagues.
Ultimately, you must always be guided by the principle of fairness. It is crucial that any decision you take would be seen as fair and reasonable by the public and those standing for office.
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