Pre-election Purdah: What it means for Comms professionals
The term ‘purdah’ has come into popular use across central and local government to describe the period of time immediately before elections when specific restrictions on communications activity are in place for all civil servants. These restrictions are put in place so as to prevent civil servants developing messaging and materials that could benefit a particular political party; but how does Purdah impact communications professionals?
Whilst guidance as to what is permitted and what isn’t is made available to both government communications officials and the public, it’s sometimes difficult to discern whether certain campaigns break the rules or if they fall within the grey area. In addition, government press teams sometimes have to respond to unfolding and/or unexpected situations, and communicate with the general public in ways which would otherwise be prohibited.
The use of social media, for example, is restricted under Purdah rules which means that you’re unlikely to see much (if any) movement from the various government departments’ Twitter handles. However, consider a situation where a major measles outbreak has the potential to impact thousands of people around the UK, should the Department of Health not disseminate warnings through all available means, including social media channels? In such a scenario it’s safe to argue that this would be allowed.
If government comms teams are restricted in what they can produce for external use, how are communications and public affairs impacted by Purdah? Firstly, civil servants’ diaries tend to clear up during this period, which means they’re more likely to accept meeting with external stakeholders. Comms agencies can therefore make the the most of this pre-election window and set up meetings with civil servants to try and get insights into what may be on the horizon.
On the other hand, however, it will be difficult to plan any campaigns that involve either central or local government bodies during the entire period leading to the election. Trying to schedule an MP visit at a local NHS hospital with press opportunities, for example, may be considered politically partisan and therefore turned down.
Whilst it’s difficult to have a clear idea on how best to engage different stakeholders up until the 7th of May, an approach based on common sense and pragmatism is best to make the most of this period and achieve your goals.
Co-authored by Vincent Paulger