Part 4: Principles and Practice

Good Practice for Managing Public Communications by Local Authorities.

In this section we set out 13 principles that we believe should underpin a Council’s policy and practice on communications. We supplement each of the principles with commentary.

We stress that the principles are intended as general statements, which are to be applied in a flexible and common sense manner. Likewise, the commentary cannot expect to foresee all possible situations that might arise.

Legitimacy and justification

Principle 1
A Council can lawfully, and should, spend money on communications to meet a community’s (or a section of a community’s) justifiable need for information about the Council’s role5 and activities.

Communications are a necessary and legitimate Council expense. Councils are also justified in employing, or otherwise engaging, professional advice and assistance for their communications activities.

However, no communication should be undertaken without justification or regard for the cost.

The main elements of justification are:

  • establishment of an identifiable need for information on the part of a particular audience;
  • the chosen method of communication should be one that is effective in reaching those who have the need; and
  • once the method has been identified, the communication should be made in the most cost-efficient manner.

Consideration should also be given to evaluating the effectiveness of the communication. What is known to have been an effective communication supports the justification for that communication and can be a benchmark to support future communications.

A communication will be lawful when it:

  • is authorised by a Council resolution or under a delegation; and
  • complies with any specific legal requirements as to form, content6, timing, or method of publication7.

A Council can also exercise significant power over individuals and groups in the community. Consequently, a Council has an obligation to ensure those people know how they are being affected by the Council’s actions, and what their rights and responsibilities are in relation to those actions.

Council communications are all the more important in the environment of the LGA. Consultation with the community is fundamental to the working of the Act, and effective communication is vital to effective consultation.

Principle 2
Communications should be consistent with the purpose of local government8 and in the collective interests of the communities the Council serves.

A Council is a corporate entity, with statutory role and purpose. The role and purpose include promoting the well-being of communities in its district or region. A Council may serve many communities, both in the geographical sense and in the sense of communities of interest. It should always act within the scope of its role and purpose, and in the collective interests of its communities.

Sometimes, a Council will need to communicate with only some of its communities about a particular issue, or with part of a community. But it should always be able to justify any communication as being in the collective interests of them all.

Principle 3
Communications should comply with any applicable Council policies and guidelines as to process (including authorisation) and content.

We encourage all Councils to adopt a policy on communications: see paragraph 1.15 on page 9.

Collective position

Principle 4
Communications on Council policies and decisions should reflect the collective position of the Council.

Wherever possible, the Council should “speak with one voice”, and its communications should represent the corporate or collective position.

A communication by an authorised spokesperson appointed by the Council (whether that person is a Member or an employee) should identify that person in his or her official capacity (for example, as a Committee chairperson). The purpose of the communication should always be to meet the Council’s, not the spokesperson’s, communications objectives. The person responsible should be careful to ensure that what is being said is portrayed as the Council’s position, not the personal views of the spokesperson.

Some Councils allow the Mayor to produce a regular “column” in a Council-funded or other local publication, or to make regular broadcasts on local radio or television. The purpose of such communications should be to give voice to the Council’s corporate position on its activities, through the elected leader.

Communication of a Member’s personal perspective, views or opinions (including in a regular “column”, broadcast, etc) should be the exception rather than the rule, and should be subject to Principles 9 to 11 (see pages 19- 21).

Principle 5
Communications on Council business should always be clearly attributed to the Council as the publisher.

A communication might, for example, identify the Council by reference to the name of the Council or by use of its corporate logo. A communication designed to meet the Council’s statutory obligations (such as a draft annual plan) should not only say who authorised its publication (usually the chief executive officer) but also identify the statutory provision under which it is being published.

For commentary about the identification of sponsors, see paragraphs 5.3-5.7 on pages 25-26.

Standards of communication

Principle 6
Factual and explanatory information should be presented in a way that is accurate, complete, fairly expressed, and politically neutral.

Accurate means what it says. That which is held out to be true should be founded on ascertainable facts, and be carefully and precisely expressed consistently with those facts. No claim or statement should be made that cannot be substantiated.

A communication will be complete when it consists of all the information necessary for the audience to make a full and proper assessment of the subject matter.

Information will be fairly expressed when it is presented in an objective, unbiased, and equitable way. In particular:

  • the audience should always be able to distinguish facts from analysis, comment, or opinion; and
  • when making a comparison, information should state fully and accurately the nature of what is being compared, and inform the audience of the comparison in a way that does not mislead or exaggerate.

Information will be politically neutral when it presents the Council’s collective position, or, where there is no collective position, sets out the issues in a manner that does not refer to the positions taken by any individual Member or political party or group of Members.

Consultation and public debate

Principle 7
Communications about matters that are under consideration by the Council, or are otherwise a matter of public debate, should present the issues in an evenhanded and non-partisan way.

Communications about matters that will be the subject of a future decision by the Council should be distinctly different from those that follow a decision.

In the “before” phase, all relevant facts and other considerations should be taken into account, and all significant points of view should be aired. The aim is to enable the Council to make itself aware of, and then to have regard to, the views of all its communities in relation to a particular decision9, while also meeting all its statutory obligations in respect of consultation10.

In particular, a “before” phase communication should:

  • avoid the appearance and reality of bias or pre-determination – especially when summarising facts or arguments;
  • present the issues in an objective manner, avoiding subjective opinion or comment; and
  • mention both the advantages and the disadvantages of particular options.

Mention of individual Members’ or political parties’ positions should always be avoided.

In the “after” phase, the emphasis should be on what has been decided and its implications for the Council and its communities.

This principle applies whether the purpose of the communication is to satisfy LGA requirements, or otherwise.

Principle 8
If engaging in public debate with an interest group or a section of the community, a Council should use the news media (rather than a Council funded publication) and designated spokespersons (rather than professional communications advisers) unless there is a particular justification for not doing so.

A Council may be justified in responding to publicity that is unfair, unbalanced, or inaccurate. The object should be to put the record straight, including a measure of rebuttal.

But it is important to keep a balance and perspective. Council resources should not be used merely to engage in a public argument.

The preferred approach in such cases should be to make use of the news media, through release and publication of a written statement or making an authorised spokesperson available for interview. Use of Council-funded publications or professional advisers to engage in debate with interest groups could create the perception that Council resources are being used for the benefit of one section of the community against another, or in a way that results in an unequal public relations contest.

4.32 An example of where a Council-funded publication to engage with an interest group could be justified is when the group has issued public statements encouraging citizens to commit acts of civil disobedience or to actively break the law.

Communications by Members

Principle 9
If the Council’s Communications Policy permits them, communications by Members of their personal perspective, views or opinions (as opposed to communication of Council matters in an official capacity) should:
• be clearly identified as such; and
• be confined to matters that are relevant to the role of local authorities11.

Members are collectively responsible for Council decisions. Communication of Council business to the community often falls to a designated spokesperson. See Principle 4 and paragraphs 4.13-4.15 on page 16.

But Members are also individually responsible to the communities that elected them. It is for the Council to decide whether and, if so, on what terms to make resources available to Members to communicate with constituents or the wider community in their capacity as individual Members.

An example of a communication that could involve a Member expressing personal views is a “Members’ column” in a Council-funded newspaper or on a Council web site.

It is important that the Communications Policy, and the relevant part of the communications budget, also sets out clearly the limits in relation to such communications. The policy should say:

  • What types of communications are permitted and in what circumstances, and the range of permitted subject matter.
  • Whether the material can or should be subject to editing and, if so, by whom.
  • What procedures apply in respect of authorisation, attribution, and editorial and quality control. These are for the Council to determine. However, whether or not material is edited, the Member must formally subscribe to what is being published.

Note, however, that a Member’s freedom to talk about Council business is subject to confidentiality requirements (such as under Standing Orders) and the Council’s Code of Conduct – especially as regards Members’ conduct towards each other and their disclosure of Council information.12

Here are our views on some other examples of a Member communicating personally:

  • It is not appropriate for a Member to use a Council newsletter or web site to express views on a matter of central government responsibility (such as defence and foreign relations) that has no direct bearing on the Council’s activities.
  • It may be appropriate (but only when the Council is undertaking no formal consultation process) for a Member to use Council facilities to consult with the public on an issue under consideration by the Council, or to explain his or her position on a contentious decision, but not to seek political support on an issue that the Council has not considered. References to, or the use of a logo or slogan of, a political party or grouping are unacceptable.
  • Members should not be permitted to use Council communications facilities for political or re-election purposes. (See Principles 12 and 13 on pages 22-24 for more information on communications in the pre-election period.)
  • Staff protocols on the use of the Internet, e-mail, and other communications facilities for personal purposes should also apply to Members. The minimal cost of allowing use of such facilities can easily be outweighed by the perception that public resources are being misused.
Principle 10
Politically motivated criticism of another Member is unacceptable in any Council-funded communication by a Member.

Neither the inherently adversarial nature of much Council politics nor the right of free speech can justify Council communications resources being used to enable one Member to engage in political debate with, or to criticise, another Member. Preventing such misuse should be an objective of the Council’s policy on where editorial control and the power to authorise communications should lie.

Members are, of course, free to use their own resources for such purposes.

Members’ personal profile

Principle 11
Care should be exercised in the use of Council resources for communications that are presented in such a way that they raise, or could have the effect of raising, a Member’s personal profile in the community (or a section of the community). In permitting the use of its resources for such communications, the Council should consider equitable treatment among all Members.

Two related objectives underlie this principle:

  • It is important that the public know who their Councillors are. Councils are justified in using, or in some circumstances permitting Members to use, Council facilities for communications that have the objective of raising a Member’s personal profile.
  • Giving a “human face” to a piece of information can be an effective communications strategy to attract attention and make the information relevant and understandable to its audience.

It is acceptable for Councils to use photographs of Members, personal quotes/attributions, and other standard journalistic techniques provided they are consistent with these objectives. However, Councils need to bear in mind the inherent risks of favouritism and unequal treatment of members.

For example, a “photo opportunity” shot, in a Council-funded publication, of a Mayor or Committee Chairperson announcing a Council decision helps to draw the reader’s attention to the decision, and thereby improve the effectiveness of its communication, but could also have an unintended and beneficial spin-off effect for the Member’s personal or political profile in the community.

Allowing Members representing a particular Ward to issue their own newsletter to constituents could have a similar effect. There is nothing wrong with such an idea in principle. However, the principle of equitable treatment makes it important that the same communications opportunity is available to Members representing other Wards. Matters such as editorial and quality control and attribution should also rest with the Council’s communications staff in accordance with Council policy.

Communications in a pre-election period13

Principle 12
A local authority must not promote, nor be perceived to promote, the re-election prospects of a sitting member. Therefore, the use of Council resources for re-election purposes is unacceptable and possibly unlawful.

Promoting the re-election prospects of a sitting Member, directly or indirectly, wittingly or unwittingly, is not part of the proper role of a local authority.

A Council would be directly promoting a Member’s re-election prospects if it allowed the member to use Council communications facilities (such as stationery, postage, internet, e-mail, or telephones) explicitly for campaign purposes.

Other uses of Council communications facilities during a pre-election period may also be unacceptable. For example, allowing Members access to Council resources to communicate with constituents, even in their official capacities as members, could create a perception that the Council is helping sitting Members to promote their re-election prospects over other candidates.

For this reason, we recommend that mass communications facilities such as –

  • Council-funded newsletters to constituents; and
  • Mayoral or Members’ columns in Council publications –

be suspended during a pre-election period.

Promoting the re-election prospects of a sitting Member could also raise issues under the Local Electoral Act 2001. For example:

  • Local elections must be conducted in accordance with the principles set out in section 4 of the Local Electoral Act – see Appendix 1 on page 27. The principles apply to any decision made by a Council under that Act or any other Act, subject only to the limits of practicality. A breach of the principles can give rise to an “irregularity” which could result in an election result being overturned.14
  • The publication, issue, or distribution of information, and the use of electronic communications (including web site and e-mail communication), by a candidate are “electoral activities” to which the rules concerning disclosure of electoral expenses apply.

“Electoral expenses”15 include:

  • the reasonable market value of any materials applied in respect of any electoral activity that are given to the candidate or that are provided to the candidate free of charge or below reasonable market value; and
  • the cost of any printing or postage in respect of any electoral activity.

A Member’s use of Council resources for electoral purposes could therefore be an “electoral expense” which the Member would have to declare – unless it could be shown that the communication also related to Council business and was made in the candidate’s capacity as a Member.

Principle 13
A Council’s communications policy should also recognise the risk that communications by or about Members, in their capacities as spokespersons for Council, during a pre-election period could result in the Member achieving electoral advantage at ratepayers’ expense. The chief executive officer (or his or her delegate) should actively manage the risk in accordance with the relevant electoral law.

Curtailing all Council communications during a pre-election period is neither practicable nor (as far as mandatory communications, such as those required under the LGA, are concerned) possible. Routine Council business must continue. In particular:

  • Some Councils publish their annual reports during the months leading up to an October election, which would include information (including photographs) about sitting Members.
  • Council leaders and spokespersons need to continue to communicate matters of Council business to the public.

However, care must be taken to avoid the perception, and the consequent risk of electoral irregularity, referred to in the commentary to principle 12. Two examples are:

  • journalistic use of photographic material or information (see paragraph 4.42 on page 21) that may raise the profile of a Member in the electorate should be discontinued during the pre-election period; and
  • access to Council resources for Members to issue media releases, in their capacities as official spokespersons, should be limited to what is strictly necessary to communicate Council business.

Even if the Council’s Communications Policy does not vest the power to authorise Council communications solely in management at normal times, it should do so exclusively during the pre-election period.

5: The role of a local authority is to—
(a) give effect, in relation to its district or region, to the purpose of local government …; and
(b) perform the duties, and exercise the rights, conferred on it by or under this Act and any other enactment.

(LGA, section 11)

6: Including the avoidance of defamatory comment, or misleading or deceptive conduct under the Fair Trading Act 1986.

7: E.g. use of the special consultative procedure under the LGA.

8: The purpose of local government is—
(a) to enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities; and
(b) to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities, in the present and for the future.

(LGA, section 10)

9: LGA, sections 14(1)(b) and 78.

10: LGA, sections 82-90.

11: Under sections 10 and 11 of the LGA – see footnotes 5 (page 14) and 8 (page 15).

12: LGA, Schedule 7, clause 15.

13: By “pre-election period” we mean the three months before the close of polling day for the purposes of calculating “electoral expenses”: see Local Electoral Act 2001, section 104. However, a Council may decide to apply restrictions over a longer period.

14: See Aukuso v Hutt City Council (District Court, Lower Hutt, MA 88/03, 17 December 2003).

15: Also defined in section 104.

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