How to prepare for an election

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

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Many have observed that 2024 is a year of elections, with about half of the global population entitled to vote this year. In the UK there are local, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections in May, and the near certainty of a General Election some time this year.

This means that all those working in PR and comms will need to be prepared.

Those working in local government have a special duty of impartiality and an obligation to avoid any announcements or campaigns during an election period (previously known as ‘purdah’) that could be interpreted as endorsing a particular candidate or political viewpoint. Those involved in political communication have rules to observe on election spending and data protection obligations.

But what should those working outside politics and government do? For the majority of PR and comms people, there are no clear rules to help them navigate the election period. 

Some of your preparation will take place in the background. But it’s increasingly likely that you’ll be forced into a position on one issue or another that may be deemed political.

In the background, you should check the new parliamentary constituency boundaries. The electoral commission has adjusted constituencies in order to make each represent a population of approximately 73,000.

In addition to new constituencies, there will be many new MPs. Around 100 members of the existing House of Commons have already said they’ll be standing down at the next election and many more seats will return new MPs because of the new constituency boundaries and because of the volatile pattern of voting. You won’t know the full list of candidates until closer to the election, but you can start researching who the main parties have selected.

The government is formed from the new House of Commons, with a Prime Minister usually being the leader of the largest party in the House. So it’s not possible to predict with absolute certainty who will form the next government – but you can certainly plan ahead.

2024 feels likely to be a year for regime change similar to 1979 and 1997. If there is to be a Labour government after the election, then we already know who is likely to be in the front bench team, based on the current shadow cabinet and assuming the various individuals are reelected by their constituencies.

But what of their policies? Some clues have been offered already and more detail will be provided in the party manifestos published in time for the election.

Moving on from this work of background briefing, what should you say or do in public in an election year? The conventional wisdom is that public relations practitioners should avoid political controversy – and should certainly avoid endorsing any candidates, parties or their policies.

So far, so safe. But what if business-as-usual is deemed political, and causes you to be dragged into a political argument? Consider this likely scenario.

Your organisation, like any responsible organisation, will have policies on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. In an election year and given culture wars framing that seeks to drive voters into two camps (‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’) any of these policies can be framed as ‘woke’ and come under attack in the media and on social media.

Being in favour of net zero carbon emissions is political; being in favour of workplace diversity is also political.

So how are you to avoid being dragged into controversy through business-as-usual? Do you deny your policies or do you defend them?

Public relations and comms advice works best in the background. It feels uncomfortable to operate in the full glare of public attention. For a case study of how this can happen, look how this happens to charities striving to work for the public good. 

It happened with the RNLI when its stated purpose to save lives at sea clashed with the clamour to ‘stop the small boats’. What’s the charity to do: fulfil its mission and be dragged into the culture wars, or allow people to drown and dismay so many of its supporters and volunteers? In truth, that’s not a hard choice – but it places PR and comms advisers in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar place.

Then there’s the National Trust. It’s faced a concerted campaign by well-funded campaigners seeking election onto its Council under the ‘Reclaim Trust’ banner. This is allied to a stream of stories in the press presenting the National Trust as more concerned with a ‘woke’ reinterpretation of history than on doing its job of preserving the natural and built environment. 

Again, what’s it to do? To back down in the face of attack or do double down and stand its ground?

National Trust Director of Communication Celia Richardson is not staying quiet:

Remember, if this can happen to organisations as inoffensive and popular as RNLI and the National Trust, then shouldn’t you be preparing for your organisation to come under attack?

If you do decide to stand your ground, remember two things.

  • Not every attack should be responded to. Don’t feed the trolls! Some attacks may be bots spreading disinformation rather than genuinely aggrieved individuals. It’s risky to respond to misinformation or disinformation because this only draws attention to it (even endorsing it, given people’s short attention spans and the way that algorithms work). For a wider discussion of misinformation and disinformation, here’s a link to our briefing. Essentially, the best form of rebuttal is prebuttal.
  • You are not your best first line of defence. PR and comms people have ‘skin in the game’ and our views will seem to lack credibility and authenticity. The best people to defend you are those in your stakeholder network who are not paid or otherwise induced to do so. Before it’s too late, do you know who your allies are? Do you know who might be prepared to come to your defence when you’re under attack? Is this one of the objectives of your investment in stakeholder relationships?

It should be easy to avoid party politics in an election year. But it will be very hard to avoid positions that might be deemed political.

So let’s end with the one uncontroversial thing we can all agree on in an election year. Democracy depends on people understanding their choices and bothering to vote, so we should all be encouraging our colleagues and/or students to:

  • Register to vote (via the electoral register)
  • Be informed on key election dates
  • Be aware of new voter ID rules 

This article was researched and written by Richard Bailey. AI was used to create the main image.

Further reading and resources:

CIPR Local Public Services: A guide to election publicity

Electoral Commission: Voter ID The electoral register and the ‘open register’

Information Commissioner’s Office: Guidance on political campaigning

Local Government Association: Pre-election period

Ofcom: Section six: Elections and referendums

House of Commons Library: Boundary review 2023: Which seats will change in the UK?

House of Commons Library: Pre-election period of sensitivity