The perils of PRs jumping “all in” on the Election

Posted on 24/04/2017

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Agency bosses calling on their clients to jump “all in” on the General Election in PR Week seemed, on the surface, like sound advice.

But it misses a vital point: legally they may find themselves on dodgy ground if they do.

Much of the debate on the regulations of ‘third party campaigners’ during General Elections has focussed on charities’ concerns about limits to their freedom of speech.

But the same restrictions apply to any organisation: corporate or voluntary.

One of the criticisms investigated by official reports into the last General Election was that corporates operated with impunity, despite the fact that Part 2
 of the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 
applies to all organisations.

Lord Hodgson said in his review of the rules:

Despite the perception among some that business organisations are not covered by the provisions of the Act, they very clearly are. It may be that the Electoral Commission should look at ensuring that businesses are fully cognisant of the rules in advance of the next relevant elections.

Greenpeace agreed in comments following its fine from the Electoral Commission for refusing to register as a non-party campaigner during the 2015 Election – they claim it was one rule for charities and another for corporates.

In 2015, Boots spent at least £10k attacking Labour and were not investigated. The reaction to its chief executive’s assertion that “if they [Labour] acted as they speak, it would be a catastrophe” provoked a reverse ferret from panicked press officers, squealing his comments been taken out of context. This was all that stood between them and a referral to the Electoral Commission.

The Boots example demonstrates how the salaries paid to executives and agency fees (higher than those in the voluntary sector) means corporates have far more to be worried about with the PR restrictions in place during an Election.

The Electoral Commission clearly states that any time incurred must be declared as contributing to the spending limits on “non party campaigners.” And even small businesses need to be on the look out.

In 2015, an “open letter” co-ordinated by a group of pro-Tory SMEs was investigated by the Electoral Commission. While the Commission found there was no case to answer, this was only because, bizarrely, signing a letter which appears in press is not covered, but some other elements of media relations are.

This year, the Commission has been at pains to state to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace that acting in coalition on an issue could see an organisation rack up the spending required to register quickly.

Advice to charities and campaigners on the General Election is to resist being silenced by the Lobbying Act. But if organisations – private and charity alike – spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in the rest of the UK on “regulated activities”, they must register with the Electoral Commission as non-party campaigners or risk breaking the law.

The agencies quoted by PR Week will, I hope, advise their clients that if they go “all in” on election work that they will also need to look at registering with the Electoral Commission as a third party campaigner and comply with spending limits and legal declarations.

Featured image by Seth Sawyers/Flickr.