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It’s purdah time!

30 March 2015

Said in a Texan or Northern Irish accent, “purdah time” sounds a bit like “party time,” and in six weeks it will be party time for the winner of the next general election.

However, here ‘purdah’ refers to the period between Parliament dissolving and the final election results. Today at 5pm Parliament will dissolve and as a result every MP elected in 2010 can no longer call themselves MPs – they’re back to being candidates.

What does this mean for charities and charity staff?

Charities and staff need to be especially careful about what they say during this time. In general, and particularly in the run up to an election, charities are not allowed to be seen to endorse the policies of a political party or a particular candidate.

It’s important to be seen as impartial. Can what you’re communicating be seen as trying to sway the public to vote a certain way?

Of course charities can continue to campaign for the things which matter to them, and invite supporters to debate what they think, but this must be done in an even-handed way. Not doing so could mean complaints to the Charity Commission or a possible breach of the Lobbying Act, which would be a serious matter for any charity.

This raises issues for staff whose social media profiles, for example, are connected to the charity they work for.

Of course social media channels such as Twitter are a great way of engaging people and getting messages out. However, if a staff member’s account identifies them as being connected to your charity, they need to be very careful not to be seen to be endorsing a party or candidate, as it's a public medium. Any political bias shown could be seen as your charity backing that party or candidate.

If staff are involved in political activity personally, or want to tweet about political issues and give their views, it might be an idea to have more than one Twitter account – to keep work-related and personal tweeting separate.

Remind staff of your social media guidelines and ask them to check with the comms team or their line manager if they’re in any doubt about how a message should be handled or whether they should say something or not.

Official guidance

In the publicity section of the Charity Commision’s guidance for Charities, Elections and Referendums it states:

  • In any publicity material (including printed material, media interviews and websites) a charity may promote its views on issues which relate to its objects and activities. However the charity must steer clear of explicitly comparing its views (favourably or otherwise) with those of the political parties or candidates taking part in the election. For example, if a housing charity supports the building of 100,000 new homes, it can outline the housing policies of each party, including how many new homes each party is committed to building, but it must not explicitly call on people to vote for one party or another. The key point is that while charities can attempt to influence public opinion on a particular issue if it furthers or supports their objects, they must leave it to the electorate to make their own decisions about how to vote.
  • Some charities publish a manifesto in order to publicise the issues which they campaign on, and in particular the changes they are calling for on behalf of their beneficiaries. Again, this is acceptable where the charity is trying to persuade the political parties to adopt the policies which it advocates, or is simply trying to raise the public profile of those issues. It is not acceptable where the intention is to influence voter behaviour. If a charity is approached by a political party for permission to refer to the charity in their manifesto, whether in relation to a political party or generally, the charity must refuse the request. This is because of the risk that the charity will be appearing to endorse the political party itself.

An opportunity

For the next six weeks every news channel will be covering the build-up to the election constantly. You won’t be able to move without seeing (insert politician you don’t like very much)’s face.

This combined with ‘purdah’ may put charities off trying to get their voices heard, but this is an ideal time to offer news editors something a bit different. There are only so many column inches that can be taken up by (insert politician you don’t like very much)’s anecdote about the time they spoke to a member of the public.

Continue to talk about the remarkable work you do and the people/animals/planet you benefit: just make sure what you’re saying doesn’t impact the chances of (insert politician you don’t like very much) being elected.

Further info:

Purdah: A short guide to publicity during the pre-election period from the Local Government Association

Speaking out: guidance on campaigning and political activity by charities from The Charity Commission.

Guidance and information for individuals and organisations that campaign in the run up to elections but do not stand as political parties or candidates form the Electoral Commission.

Rob Newsome

digital and social media assistant, MSF UK

Rob joined CharityComms as communications officer in June 2012, progressed to become digital content editor and moved to Medicins Sans Frontieres in June 2015. There he works on social media and web content. Before this, Rob worked as a PR and comms officer for a charity in Delhi after completing his MA in multimedia broadcast journalism.