Across England on Thursday 4 May, many residents will be going to the polls to have their say on who should represent them in local government for the next four years. With the national picture as uncertain as ever, it’s likely to be an eventful day. 

In the run-up to the elections, however, for council communications teams and their projects, it can be a quieter time than usual. In one sense at least. 

That’s because for six weeks prior to the election they enter a period of pre-election restrictions – previously known as purdah. 

These restrictions relate to how councils publicise their policies and work. During this time the onus is on council officers to take special care in how they communicate, to ensure no bias or undue influence over the election by the incumbent administration. 

While there is good guidance available from the Local Government Association (LGA), this can often be a confusing time for officers and can involve regular conversations with the returning or monitoring officer over the publicity that sits in the grey area. 

Proactive media, events or photography relating to or involving parties and their candidates are clearly prohibited. But in other areas, lines are more blurred. The official guidance states that councils should ‘not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party’. However, much of the business-as-usual communications can and should continue. 

Often this makes for difficult decisions in communications teams with some choosing the overtly cautious approach of saying as little as possible until after the elections, with others much more prepared to carefully navigate the landscape. 

This can be challenging when councils are working together (particularly given that some may not have any elections in a particular round), but also internally with communication teams and other services needing to work in partnership to balance publicity plans with the restriction sensitivities. 

For existing campaigns or engagement relating to, for example, transport, waste or infrastructure projects, officers are recommended to think carefully about any impact on the upcoming elections. That said it’s important that there is not simply a void in communications. Residents and stakeholders still need to hear important information and, as council colleagues across the country are experiencing now, still need to fight misinformation or defend their reputation appropriately. 

At a time when the use of public money has never been more closely scrutinised, and in the age of fast-moving, social media generated news, this is getting to be an ever more difficult landscape to navigate.