BE LEGAL: A guide to surviving tricky elected members in three minutes and three hours

SONY DSCIt can be truly great working with politicians. It can also be tricky. You can be pressured to help one side or the other. But if you do you’ll be in the cross-hairs of rival politicians. Here’s a simple guide to avoid pitfalls. Not just during Purdah but all year round.

Here’s a scenario for you. You pick up the phone to an important politician who is up for election.

They’re asking about that picture you took of them at the launch of the new play equipment.

Can you just send it across?

You’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the image will go into her campaign leaflet. So you ask what the picture will be used for.

Of course, if it is for a leaflet you don’t send it. It was taken using public resources so shouldn’t be used for political campaigning. But how do you say ‘no’ constructively?

Take it from me, unless you have chapter and verse in front of you that conversation is going to be a little bit tricky. At best, you are going to look a bit evasive and unhelpful. At worst, you are going to look uninformed and when the politician complains you may have more pressure put on you to do the wrong thing.

Of course, in an ideal world, every elected member knows what they can and can’t expect you do and wouldn’t dream of leaning on you to bend the rules. But, of course, we aren’t in an ideal world.

In my experience, every authority has at least one elected member who will try and push the rules. Especially with junior members of staff. And every authority has at least one elected member who will spot what you’ve done and attempt to nail you to the floor. Comms teams can often be accused of being ‘political mouthpieces.’ Mainly by people who don’t understand the role they do. My advice is don’t let them. But to do that successfully you’ll need to know very, very clearly what you can and can’t do.

It’s not just councils, either. This covers partners, police, national parks and very often fire services too.

Why three minutes and three hours?

It’ll take you three minutes to read this post. It’ll then take you three hours to do the groundwork you’ll need to do. Put it off until the merde hits the fan and it could be too late. Do you and your team a favour and put the work in ahead of time. It’ll be one of the best things you ever do.

What do you need to do? You need to read through several key documents. You need to cut and paste the passages that govern what you can and can’t do for elected members. Don’t paraphrase. It’s far more effective to read back the page, paragraph and chapter and verse. Make sure all your team know it, have a copy and have access to it.

Read your media protocols

Every communications unit needs a media and publicity protocols document. This sets out what you’ll do for elected members. It also sets out when and where the team get involved. Normally, this will be agreed between you, the chief executive and Leader. It can change and be updated two or three times a year. It’s an important document but not the best one in your armoury.

The Council DCLG Code

The Department for Communities and Local Government has issued eight pages of guidance on what councils should and shouldn’t do. In England, the guidance from 2011 can be found right here. You may want to cite one of the key principles of the guidance that it is even-handed, for example. For Scotland and Wales the guidance dates back amazingly to 1988. You can find it here.

If you work in a local government comms team you should know your guidance backwards. It’ll also give you some good ground rules on what you can and can’t do.

Your authority’s constitution

It’s a funny thing but your constitution has a power over politicians that is practically unmatched. Your protocols they can debate. The DCLG code they can decide to defy. The constitution? That’s a whole different thing. It’s the day-to-day rules they are governed by. You’ll find things in there about publicity, sure. You’ll also find things about the staff – elected member relationship and probably some safeguards against undue pressure too.

Professional codes of conduct

Back when I was looking through my council’s constitution there was explicit reference to professional codes. For comms people this can provide two helpful routes. Firstly, the National Union of Journalists. Their code applies to comms people just as much as reporters as they have comms members. The line: ‘Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair,’ is a particular favourite.

Secondly, you can also draw on the Chartered Institute of Public Relations code of conduct too.

Purdah guidance

The LGA have written some excellent Purdah guidance for 2016 which you can see here. We’ve also blogged some guidance on Purdah and social media and you can read that here. If you are central government, look out for Cabinet Office guidance that will be published ahead of elections.

What next?

In short, there’s some legwork involved here. Yes, I know you are busy. But this could save your skin in the long run.

Once you’ve pulled things together, publish it on your web pages and make it public. Let the leaders of each group know the contents on the internal guidance too so they can’t pretend to be in the dark.

Picture credit:  Clemens v Vogelsang / Flickr / https://flic.kr/p/iWUJBn


RIGHT WRITING: The Business of Blogging: One Voice of 14

6046349308_d716c904e7_oBlogging. Why bother? It’s a question I’ve asked myself before as I’ve reached for the laptop after a busy day when probably a bottle of wine would have been better.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. According to one estimate there are more than 200 million and that’s not event counting micro-blogging platform Twitter.

For me, it’s a place to think things through, bounce an idea or record something as a snapshot and it was fascinating to read through the other entries CIPR President Stephen Waddington captured in ‘The Business of Blogging.’ You can read it here.

There is also a slideshare where you can read and download.

This is my short contribution:

There’s a loose network of people in the public sector I’m proud to belong to. We’ve been called ‘militant optimists’ because despite everything we’re still determined to make a difference.

We work in central government – or in my case local government – and we organise through Twitter, we meet-up and we kick around ideas, we learn and we share through blog posts.

Why do we bother? Because we’re all in it together. We’re all facing cuts and we’re seeing empty chairs where colleagues used to be. We’re faced with the internet turning old certainties on its head.

We’re not in competition against each other so we can collaborate. We stage our own events that anyone can come to and we share ideas afterwards on blog posts that have become the currency for learning in a sector where training budgets have been stripped where the rule book hasn’t been written and it’s never been more important to do a good job. For us blogging is booming and mobile is simply sharing our ideas on the go.

I’ve blogged for five years. Why do I blog? Because I can flesh out an idea far easier online than in practice. I can capture or share. It’s changed how I think, how I work and I’m finding doors opening that the blog has led me to.

Creative commons credit

Blogger http://www.flickr.com/photos/66356408@N07/6046349308/


FOUR REASONS: Why I’m not in the CIPR

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There are four reasons why I’m not in the CIPR which is progress, I suppose, as there used to be five.

Of course, the optimist in me calls this a 20 per cent improvement year-on-year.

But the realist in me still thinks there’s an 80 per cent reason for me not to join. Just yet. Although there’s much I greatly admire.

The CIPR – the Chartered Institute for Public Relations – is an organisation based in London and represents PR people from across the broad sweep of the industry from the newest student to the most experienced agency chief. It costs £260 to join as a member with £50 of that being a joining fee.

They do good things

It’s also an organisation I do have time for. Their excellent CIPR conversation aggregates blogs from people across the industry and pulls them into one place. They’ll also be tweeted. Disclaimer: my blog gets syndicated there from time to time and Andrew Ross does a fine job in pulling all of this together. I learn things there.

I’m also quietly rooting for Stephen Waddington to become president in the current elections. Why? Because he’s from Northumberland. But mainly because he understands digital communications and sees its growing place of importance. Besides, he tweets pictures of lambs on his farm.

It was a Twitter exchange with Stephen and then with CIPR member Stuart Bruce a couple of days ago that prompted me to think just why I wasn’t a member. So, here are the reasons:

Four reasons why I’m not a member

1. I’m local government. I spend a lot of time in the trenches with my sleeves rolled up doing day-to-day comms that doesn’t easily fit into extensive comms plans. There’s definitely the ability to draw-up one page of A4 as a comms plan in 20 minutes that is a skill that draws on local knowledge.

It also means that having a budget to carry out strategy is largely a thing of the past.

8186649265_7dcd664b15_b2. I’m West Midlands. There’s no question that if I was in London with the events on offer this would be a different proposition. But a trip to the capital makes even a free event cost £50 and the activities in the middle of the country are scarce.

3. I’m public sector. With budgets cut it means that paying £200 to attend a day of conference isn’t ever going to happen anytime in the next 20 years.

4. There’s too many PR people. Stick with me on this. When we were getting our head around social media in 2008 case studies were rare and the CIPR seemed to be living in the past. A group unhealthily centred on print and talking a 20th century language of channels and key messages. The ideas that formed the bedrock of our use of social came from coders, bloggers, police officers and geeks who were busy inventing new envelopes to push to care too much about comms plans. They inspired us at events like localgovcamp and every day still do. As social tools become easier to access the role of comms is changing. It’s often those at the frontline who are doing amazing work and it’s the role of comms to inspire, train and give the green light.

I’m sure there are some hugely talented PR people who are re-writing the rule book. But there are many more rule books being invented on the web by others outside the traditional comms job description. These are the geeks that are inheriting the world that are taking code, messing about with and building things.

The fifth?

There was of course a fifth which isn’t always the case these days. The CIPR is not just understanding digital but doing some great pioneering work with it too.

No comms organisation can exist in 2013 without both eyes firmly on 2023 and not with it’s heart hankering for 1983.

Creative commons credits

Telephones black http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholasjon/4331186333/sizes/l/

Telephone red http://www.flickr.com/photos/twosevenoneonenineeightthreesevenatenzerosix/8186649265/sizes/l/