What does the pre-election (or Purdah) period mean for communications teams?

Those of us who have worked as public sector communicators know that far from being the ‘slow down’ it’s often presented to be, Purdah can actually prove to be a time of immense productivity. It can provide a rare opportunity to plan, evaluate and importantly, review and improve internal practices.

For the first time in almost a century a General Election is due to take place during the festive period. And for those of us who work with public sector clients, that can mean a significant slow down in external communications. The reasons for this are sound and summed up in the Civil Service Code and in legislation stating that public bodies should “not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party.”

But what does this really mean for public sector communications during this period? What is and is not allowed, and how do we balance the need to keep people informed about services, whilst adhering to the rules? 

The word ‘purdah’ originates from Persia (modern-day Iran) and means veil or curtain. It’s been criticised as having sexist or colonial undertones and some commentators have suggested that instead, it is simply referred to as the ‘pre-election period’.  In General Election terms, this refers to the six weeks between the dissolution of Parliament and the date of the election. During this time public servants, government departments, ministers and civil servants have a duty to continue business as usual, but to also be cautious about taking part in any activities that could call into question their political impartiality.

In reality, this means that many communications departments release very little externally. You will see very few quotes or statements from politicians, as officials cannot be seen to support candidates.

Those of us who have worked as public sector communicators know that far from being the ‘slow down’ it’s often presented to be, this period can actually prove to be a time of immense productivity. It can provide a rare opportunity to plan, evaluate and importantly, review and improve internal practices.

We brought the whole of our team together and discussed the best internal projects to guarantee your external communications make an impact. Here’s our top five:

Alex Vryzakis, Account Executive

Alex Vryzakis, Account Executive

1. Alex says: “Map your influencers & stakeholders”

Influencers and stakeholders are possibly the most important advocates for your organisation as they are the trusted gateways to your end audience. Communications professionals can use the media to leverage messages, but stakeholder and influencer channels can be just as effective. Identifying individuals and organisations requires time and quality desk research, but once you know who you should be keeping close, and the relationships are established, you will quickly reap the benefits. 

Alex Vryzakis helped shape our unique influencer engagement method and creates informative stakeholder packs for all her clients, drop her an email to find out more

Jo Kingston, Account Director

Jo Kingston, Account Director

2. Jo advises: “Use the time to build your content bank” 

You can never have enough relevant, quality content that can be shared across all channels, and purdah is the ideal time to create it. A clear understanding of your audiences’ challenges and motivations will make the development process easier and enable your content to have a clear call to action. Though it should go without saying that the content needs to be fresh and new.

Jo Kingston created 30 case studies for the Knowledge Transfer Network and is currently working on detailed academic profiles for Jesus College Oxford fellows. Get in touch with Jo to find out more. 

3. Emma recommends: “Refine your strategy and consider your wider business goals”

Emma Thwaites, Founder and CEO

Emma Thwaites, Founder and CEO

This is possibly the most important element of communications planning, yet it often gets forgotten. Think about your organisation’s aims, objectives and overarching business goals, and make sure the communications strategy is aligned with these. It’s also vital that your colleagues understand the strategic aims of the organisation because it will streamline communications and resonate clearly with end audiences. 

Emma Thwaites has over 25 years’ strategic communications experience and has worked closely with all Thwaites’ clients to help them develop their communications strategies. Get in touch with Emma to find out how she can help you.

4. Emma says: “Develop personas to understand your audiences”

Understanding where your audience is now, and where you want them to be, is a crucial step in strategy planning that can be easy to forget. Develop detailed personas for your different audiences, even if you feel you have been working with them for decades, as their habits change over time and your communications strategy must be adaptable. This will help focus your communications by speaking to them in their language and reaching them through their preferred channels.

Emma has used audience personas for clients ranging from the Open Data Institute to the NHS to deliver targeted and effective campaigns. Get in touch with Emma to learn more.

Emel Rizwani, Digital Marketing Manager

Emel Rizwani, Digital Marketing Manager

5. Emel says: “Stop broadcasting and start engaging” 

This is the time to turn off ‘broadcast’ mode, and switch on ‘conversation’ mode; start listening to what your network is saying online. At Thwaites, we use free tools such as TweetDeck which, with the right experience and a keen analytical eye, enable you to identify the right conversations to join.

Again, this is something that takes time to do well, but if you combine this work with influencer and stakeholder engagement online, you will instantly start to develop a stronger bond of trust with your key audiences.

Emel has over five years experience in managing clients’ social media and has a laser focused eye for spotting opportunities to join in conversations. You can get in touch with Emel or follow her to see her in action. 

These five projects are worth doing at any time but the next six weeks might just give you the time to execute them. Strategy provides the overarching narrative for your communications activity, audience insights enable targeted content creation, and stakeholder and influencer engagement creates momentum for social listening and interaction. Take this gift of time, and use it to shape and improve the outcomes for your work in 2020 – the results will be evident long after the General Election is over. 

 

Ref.1:  Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986, as amended in 1988.