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


BIG PICTURES: How pictures make Facebook posts fly (and where to get them)

How much difference does it make to add a picture to a Facebook update? Lots. Or to be more precise 147 per cent.

That was the figure when we posted two updates within minutes on a broadly similar subject.

The first celebrated a Britain in Bloom win for towns in Walsall Council’s boundaries with a picture of flowers in Aldridge drew 37 shares, 88 likes and an audience of 3,,508 on the authority’s Facebook page. I’d be the first to admit that this image isn’t the most arresting in the world. But it says both place and colour and that’s enough.

Fullscreen capture 22092013 065857

The second posted without a picture a few minutes later celebrated recognition in the same competition for a school and nine pubs. That drew four shares and 12 likes with a reach of 1,415.

Fullscreen capture 22092013 070026

Okay, the subject matter is slightly different: towns compared with school children and popular pubs. But there’s enough there to draw some conclusions.

It’s an approach that the ECB takes when the England Test team are playing. It’s something I’ve written about before. Rather than just posting a text score update they post an image of the man of the moment with text too.

If you can, adding text through a simple picture editing tool is a great idea. A phone number or a message works. For that you can use Google’s own Picasa3 software.

What do the numbers teach us?

Firstly, sharable content is important on Facebook and in this case so is a celebratory upbeat message.

Secondly, people are really keen to share messages. Obvious. But it’s important to remember this.

Thirdly, having a stack of pictures available to you is helpful.

But where do you source pictures?

Google images?

This is potentially a bit of a minefield. No, you can’t go to Google images right click and save. Copyright applies to images online just as much as they do online and people have ended up in hot water. Google also allows people to search for a specific image online so if you think you’ll be safe hiding in the fire hose of information that is the web think again.

Your image library?

The basic fact under the 1988 Copyright and Designs Act is that when someone takes a picture they retain copyright. Even if you have paid them. If you’ve, say, commissioned a freelance photographer to take some shots of a night market you are buying a licence to use them for a specific purpose. That can be as broad as marketing and promotion on your website, in print and with the local paper. It may not include social media and you’ll need to check this with the photographer. This NUJ link on copyright and photography is helpful.

Your own?

And by your own I mean one that you’ve taken yourself with your smartphone or camera. Handy if you have time and ability. Not so good if you need an image of flowers in a town centre at a moment’s notice.

Stock photography?

You can, but it costs. Istock is one example of an online image library but there are charges. It’s even more for a Getty shot.

Creative Commons?

One of the great things about the social web is the ability to share. Creative Commons licences are licences which a photographer – amateur or professional – can attach to an image when they post it onto an image library. They’re basically saying that they’re happy for their image to be re-used under certain laid out conditions. The US government, for example, releases virtually all images with a creative commons licence.

So where do I go for creative commons images?

Without doubt the best place on the web is compfight.com. This is a site which works with Flickr’s API to search for key phrases and words. It also searches through a variety of filters from the non-creative commons to the creative commons to the most liberal of all – commercial creative commons which allows a broader re-use.

Fullscreen capture 22092013 071501

It’s not great for specific locations, I admit. There’s a handful of images creative commons for Walsall, for example. But it comes into its own when you need a stocjk pic, like boxing gloves, a coffee cup or clouds in a sky.

It’s a brilliant site. But please, don’t forget to attribute and share where the picture has come from. It’s what makes the social web work.

Legal disclaimer: Always, if you need specific legal advice go and see a lawyer rather than base it on this or any other online advice.