Working in government comms during purdah: What to do in the pre-election period

Written by Vickie Sheriff on 9 May 2017 in Opinion

The run up to an election creates time to review what Whitehall comms projects have gone well and to learn lessons that can be used with the incoming government

Photo: PA

For the professional communicators in the civil service, the run up to any general election is a unique experience and a valuable time to refresh and refocus.

The pre-election period known as ‘purdah’ has special rules for communicators. 

It’s not quite ‘down tools and put your feet up’, but it does mean that comms people can no longer communicate what the government of the day has achieved and there are strict rules about what one can or can’t say officially. 

For Whitehall comms folk, this period provides is an opportunity to clear out your desk both virtual or real and take a break if you can.

However, what it is most valuable for is the opportunity to freshen up on skills and approaches, to look outwards and learn from others in the industry. Of course, this is something that one should do regardless of an election period, but right now there's really no excuse not to.

If you're a government communicator, here's my advice on how best to use your time in purdah:

  1. Reach out - Why not catch up with colleagues working in communications unrelated to government to hear what they are doing to learn new stuff, think about things differently, to pitch or pinch ideas?
  2. Read up - Pore through industry titles such as PR Week, Marketing Week, CorpComms, Communicate, Campaign and LinkedIn (there are plenty of others of course) to read up on case studies and latest trends that will open your mind to new ideas and better ways of engaging.
  3. Reflect - Look back on what has worked and hasn't worked on the communications projects that you've been involved with. Did you have a clear objective? Did you really engage or just do enough to keep the minister happy? Did you assess how successful you were before moving onto the next project? How would you do things differently? Why not get a few colleagues together, pick a couple of your projects and go back over them again and ask 'with what we know now, how could we have done that differently?'. Hindsight is a powerful thing, we all know.
  4. Research - Get hold of the insight and research you've not seen or made time to read properly that's relevant to your area. It will help you understand what to communicate and do so better. It will be worth it and no doubt raise new questions to ask.
  5. Prepare - Parties’ manifestos will be eagerly awaited and seeing them was always pretty exciting. Read each of them and see what the communications challenges they will bring and how you might deliver on them.
  6. Prepare - Nearer election day, the comms teams should be preparing ‘day one briefs’ for their new ministers that will set out the background of what’s been achieved to date in line with their manifesto, what they can practically offer (the tools in their comms toolkit) and what strategy they can offer to help deliver the new government’s agenda. 
  7. Prepare - Each government department should be considering their 'week one comms plan'. What early exposure can you give a new secretary of state and team of ministers to help them get on top of their briefs, start building relations amongst stakeholders and engaging on the important issues fast.

So there's lots to do before the whirlwind and excitement that the new government will bring, not just go on that tour across South America you've always promised yourself... 

Ensuring you've got the right and most relevant skills and understanding as a government communicator wherever you work is essential – especially if you've been in post some time. Now's the time to do something about it.

About the author

Vickie Sheriff is a director of communications and served successive governments in comms roles from 1995 to 2013. She was head of news at Number 10 and latterly group director of comms at the DfT. These are her personal views, and a version of this post was first published on LinkedIn.

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