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


SOCIAL PROPOSAL: Proposals to Improve Health and Wellbeing Board Social Media… what do you think?

179279964_8e0675c135_oThere’s a new network of key bodies across England that work to improve the health and wellbeing of their local residents and reduce health inequalities.

Known as ‘health and wellbeing boards’, they bring together the local council, clinical commissioning group, Healthwatch and other key local players in a genuine partnership and they do a really important job.

By their own admission they are not always great at using social media and, while there are some good examples, we think some light-touch guidance would encourage people to explore the opportunities of increased or improved digital engagement.

We’re very pleased to say that we have been chosen by the Local Government Association to help them draw up some proposals for this guidance and we’d like to ask what you think of it so we can polish and shape it.

We think better social media can lead to better engagement, better transparency, better communication, better curation and better listening.

Our broad thoughts in six points:

  • Rather than have a one-size fits all set of guidelines we think they should be phased from the entry-level one star right up to the top-of-the-class five star.
  • We think there should be some thought given to the name of whichever social profile is used. It may be that the name ‘health and wellbeing board’ is off-putting to some people.
  • We think there is enough guidance out there for professionals and we’d like to signpost people towards that. Doctors, for example, have the BMA social media guidelines. Elected members have some of their own too. We don’t want to replace these but we do make some suggestions for how social media can be used by the health and wellbeing board as a whole.
  • It’s not just Twitter. There is a range of different platforms. So when slides are shown, for example, they can be posted to a platform like slideshare so people can follow at home.
  • Yes, livestreaming meetings on the internet is a good idea and we’d not only encourage that but we’d ask that space be given for the public to ask questions via a social channel too.
  • We think engagement between meetings is key too. Not just during.

We think there should be some broad principles too:

The Five Be’s of an effective social Health and Wellbeing Board

Be engaging: it should interact wherever possible with users and reflect the debate.

Be timely: it should post information at a time that is most convenient to the audience.

Be jargon-free: it should use language that works on the platform of choice. It should not use jargon and language that people outside the health and wellbeing board would struggle to understand. It should be informal wherever possible.

Be connected: it should look to share content from partners and from across the public or third sector where is relevant. It could work with the partners who make-up the board to collectively focus on an issue to amplify a message and a debate.

Be informative: it should look to inform and to educate.

The five levels of social media

We’d love people to be on the fifth level but we have to be realistic. These proposed five levels give a low barrier to entry on level one and encourage councils to progress.

Level  Requirement
Level One –       Post meeting date and time on one social platform–       Jargon free
Level Two –       Post meeting date and time on one social platform-       Jargon free

–       Cover meeting discussion on one social platform and curate content.

–       Publish slides of presentations given at the meeting and post to a health and wellbeing board page or microsite.

Level Three –       Post meeting date and time on one social platform-       Jargon free

–       Cover meeting discussion on one social platform and curate content.

–       Publish slides of presentations given at the meeting and post to a health and wellbeing board page or microsite.

–       Livestream or allow residents to livestream and curate content.

–       Enable questions to be asked of the meeting from social media

Level Four –       Post meeting date and time on one social platform-       Jargon free

–       Cover meeting discussion on one social platform and curate content.

–       Publish slides of presentations given at the meeting and post to a health and wellbeing board page or microsite.

–       Livestream or allow residents to livestream and curate content.

–       Enable questions to be asked of the meeting from social media

–       Digital engagement through social media between meetings that is fed back into the entire decision making process

Level Five –       Post meeting date and time on one social platform-       Jargon free

–       Cover meeting discussion on one social platform and curate content.

–       Publish slides of presentations given at the meeting and post to a health and wellbeing board page or microsite.

–       Livestream or allow residents to livestream and curate content.

–       Enable questions to be asked of the meeting from social media

–       Digital engagement through social media between meetings that is fed back into the entire decision making process

–       Searchable agendas that used metadata

–       An interactive website that the public can comment on.

–       Members enabled to use one or more platform during and between meetings

 

So what do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? We’d like you to have your say on this.

Please complete our online survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LGAforHWB.

Visit the LGA website for more information and a Word doc version of the survey.

The consultation closes on 2 July.

 Creative commons credits

Jumping http://www.flickr.com/photos/40645538@N00/179279964/


ELECT SOCIAL: your handy cut-and-paste social media purdah guidelines

463965443_019f28a0db_oThere’s this funny period in the run-up to an election which sees local government comms team change behaviour.

Gone are the press releases from politicians and in comes quotes from officers. Why? To ensure that the council cannot be accused of political bias in the run up to polling day.

It’s been around for decades and local government comms teams have got a pretty good grasp of what this entails. It means under The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity (Local Government Act 1986) that newsletters, press releases, conferences, badges and web pages are affected.

The code says:

The period between the notice of an election and the election itself should preclude proactive publicity in all its forms of candidates and other politicians involved directly in the election.

Publicity should not deal with controversial issues or report views, proposals or recommendations in such a way that identifies them with individual members or groups of members.

However, it is acceptable for the authority to respond in appropriate circumstances to events and legitimate service enquiries provided that their answers are factual and not party political.

Members holding key political or civic positions should be able to comment in an emergency or where there is a genuine need for a member level response to an important event outside the authority’s control.

Proactive events arranged in this period should not involve members likely to be standing for election.

What this means is that the council’s resources must not be or even appear to an observer to be used for party political ends in this period of heightened political sensitivity.

Six golden rules during Purdah

  1. No publicity will be given to matters which are politically controversial.
  2. The general presumption will be that no references will be made to individual politicians in press releases (except where there is a valid emergency as set out below)
  3. Great caution will be exercised before undertaking any significant media exercise unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election was called.
  4. No photographs of candidates in the election will be issued
  5. Before any request for council photographs and other materials is considered, enquiries will be made as to the use to which they are to be put and an appropriate restriction on use imposed if supplied.
  6. The position of Mayor as the figurehead of the authority is different and material will be issued, providing it is not of a political nature.

But what teams struggle with is social media. How does this affect the Twitter stream? Here’s a cut-out-and-keep guidance for people who operate council social media channels (disclaimer: check it with your legal team first).

Twitter

  1. Please explain that as a council channel of communication you are governed by Purdah in a period before an election. It may be helpful to tweet a link to an explanation of Purdah for guidance.
  2. Do not retweet political parties, politicians or political opinion.
  3. Do not tweet on matters which are politically controversial.
  4. Do not tweet images of political parties, politicians or subjects which are politically controversial.
  5. Do not stage a significant Twitter-based campaign unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election was called.
  6. Tweets by and about the Mayor may be retweeted as long as they are not of a political nature.
  7. In exceptional circumstances please first seek permission from the communications unit to tweet or retweet a comment by a politician during Purdah.

Facebook

  1. Please explain that as a council channel of communication you are governed by Purdah in a period before an election.
  2. Do not post or share updates from political parties, politicians or political opinion.
  3. Do not post or share images from political parties, politicians or political opinion.
  4. Monitor your page and delete any content which is politically controversial with an explanation that this has been done so because of the rules that govern Purdah linking to this advice.
  5. Tweets by and about the Mayor may be retweeted as long as they are not of a political nature.
  6. Do not stage a significant Facebook-based campaign unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election was called.
  7. In exceptional circumstances please first seek permission from the communications unit to tweet or retweet a comment by a politician during Purdah.

YouTube

  1. Please explain that as a council channel of communication you are governed by Purdah in a period before an election.
  2. Do not post or share updates from political parties, politicians or political opinion.
  3. Do not post or share images from political parties, politicians or political opinion.
  4. Monitor your page and delete any content which is politically controversial with an explanation that this has been done so because of the rules that govern Purdah linking to this advice.
  5. Videos by or about the Mayor may be added as long as they are not of a political nature.
  6. Do not stage a significant YouTube-based campaign unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election was called.
  7. In exceptional circumstances please first seek permission from the communications unit to add a YouTube clip by a politician during Purdah.

Third party social media profiles

Council staff who update third party social media profiles as part of their job are governed by Purdah. These profiles include business partnership profiles which the council supports.

There are two options:

  1. Opt out: For the duration of Purdah hand over ALL admin to a non-council member of the partnership and allow them to add Purdah-restricted content that council staff are unable to post. Resume adding content and managing after the election.
  2. Opt in: Council employees can continue to add content or share admin duties but ALL content is governed by Purdah restrictions.

Flickr

  1. Please explain that as a council channel of communication you are governed by Purdah in a period before an election.
  2. Do not post or share pictures from political parties, politicians or political opinion.
  3. Monitor your page and delete any content which is politically controversial with an explanation that this has been done so because of the rules that govern Purdah linking to this advice.
  4. Images by or about the Mayor may be added as long as they are not of a political nature.
  5. Do not stage a significant Flickr-based campaign unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election was called.
  6. In exceptional circumstances please first seek permission from the communications unit to add a YouTube clip by a politician during Purdah.
  7. Please disable the ability to download images of politicians during Purdah

Creative commons credit

Election van: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48600108001@N01/463965443/