Dean Russell: Be aware of the rules of purdah as you prepare for the next election

Charities may be expected to avoid political campaigning, says our columnist

Now that the political conference season is over and the consensus is that the general election will be held in May 2010, what should you be doing to prepare for the big event? And how are you planning to deal with the complicated matter of purdah, once campaigning officially begins?

Purdah is the period between the announcement of an election and the date on which an election is held, during which no politically sensitive announcements should be made. Essentially, it's intended to ensure the existing government, civil servants and public bodies do not engage in, or appear to engage in, party politics that could affect voters' thinking.

Historically, charities weren't included in the official purdah guidelines. However, during the last general election the Charity Commission decided to create its own, and charities are expected to follow them.

Even with these guidelines there remain a number of grey areas, particularly concering how purdah is enforced.

For example, during the run-up to the last election the 'finger-click' campaign by Make Poverty History, which showed celebrities such as Bob Geldof and Davina McCall clicking their fingers every three seconds to mark the death of a child, was removed from television screens by the media regulator Ofcom because it was deemed too politically sensitive.

Many felt this was overzealous at the time and encouraged the charities involved to shift the advert to the cinema screen, which Ofcom could do nothing about.

Such shifts from one medium to another are the biggest challenge when enforcing the various guidelines. This is a particular problem when social media and user-generated content are involved.

In this area, charities would be well advised to look at how any ongoing web strategy might be affected by the rules and try to understand the complexities of how to deal with political discourse online. Perhaps the Charity Commission should also try to be clearer in this area.

Of course, purdah can also be a time for opportunity. With all eyes on politics during the election campaign, a well-planned strategy should be able to stick to the rules and still create a buzz around important issues.

Working on the assumption of a May 2010 election, there is still plenty of time for you to develop strategies for lobbying before and during the purdah period. Being prepared and understanding the intricacies of the rules now will mean you can do something smart and high-impact without getting into any trouble.

- Dean Russell is head of digital marketing at Precedent Communications

FACT FILE - Sticking to the guidelines

Charity Commission guidance on purdah lists five areas where charities could be at risk of becoming embroiled in party politics.

The section on publicity says charities should avoid explicitly comparing their views with those of political parties or candidates in the election.

Under the Local Government Act 1986, local authorities must not give publicity to any political party or publish any material that might influence public opinion for or against a political party. This extends to charities that receive local authority funding. The definition of published material includes printed or electronic media and TV and radio broadcasts.

In 2005, Ofcom ruled that Make Poverty History's 'finger-click' advert should be banned because it aimed to "achieve important changes to the policies of the Government and those of other western governments".

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