The geographical area of Waverley is well served by a wide range of media. The titles, contact information and publication deadlines can be found in Appendix A.
Publicity and the law
The restrictions on political publicity are contained in Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986, as amended by Section 27 of the Local Government Act 1988.
Under the regulations, local authorities are not allowed to publish any material which could be deemed to influence support for a political party. Where publicity, particularly press releases, are used to comment on or respond to the policies or proposals of central government or other public authorities, the comment or response should be objective, balanced, informative and accurate.
The law in the run up to elections
Publicity during the run-up to an election is a particularly sensitive issue. All publicity referring to a political party, existing Member or anyone standing for election must be suspended between the publication of a notice of election and polling day.
During this period, no Member will be quoted in press releases. However, a Member holding a key political or civic position, may, if appropriate, provide a comment on an emergency or an important event outside of Waverley’s control where there is a need for a Member response. The Chief Executive will advise in these special circumstances.
A proactive media service
To achieve the aim of providing a media service that is proactive, a forward planning process has been introduced which requires all departments to prepare a monthly schedule outlining key events and issues that may require media/public relations support. It is envisaged that directors will consult with their relevant portfolio holder when putting together this information.
With the communications unit being made up of just two full-time equivalent staff, forward planning is key for ensuring that departments and Members are provided with a quality service. To enable this service objective to be met, and to allow Waverley’s communications to be as proactive as possible, each department should have a ‘nominated representative’ who can ensure early notification to the communications unit about contentious or newsworthy issues due to appear in committee papers. This approach will result, not only in improved media relations, but fair coverage of issues.
Requesting a press release
To ensure as much good press coverage as possible for Waverley Borough Council’s services, it is Waverley’s aim that its corporate communications are proactive. To achieve this, the communications unit needs to work effectively with services and Members in order to ensure that communications are timely. Apart from urgent and unforeseen press releases that will normally receive a reactive response, at least four working days notice needs to be given to the communications unit. If notice is not given, the timely issue of the release cannot be guaranteed.
To ensure a prompt and accurate release, the person requiring the press release will be asked to fill in or to provide the information requested on the ‘press release request form’ – see example at Appendix B. This will help to ensure that the communications unit is provided with all of the necessary information needed to write the press release which will in turn avoid delays in its issue. If a request is considered to be not particularly newsworthy, the communications unit will discuss its appropriateness with the person requesting the press release.
Priority will be given to press releases that are considered to be the most newsworthy and that promote Waverley’s corporate aims and objectives.
Editorial control for all Waverley Borough Council press releases rests with the Borough Communications Manager and the Assistant Chief Executive. All press releases will be approved and released by the communications unit.
One of the main aims of the ‘modernising agenda’ is to make local government more accountable. The communications unit works for the Council as a whole.
Immediately following the Executive briefing, the deputy leader will advise the communications unit of press releases that are required by the Executive.
Overview and Scrutiny Committees
Chairs of the Overview and Scrutiny Committees can request that a press release is written providing that it promotes the work of the committee and not a personal or political agenda.
The emphasis of the release will aim to reflect factually the view of the Overview and Scrutiny committee. The chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee will be given the opportunity to include a factual quote. Likewise, the relevant portfolio holder will also be given the opportunity to provide a factual quote in response.
Partnership press releases
On occasions where the communications team is required to write press releases about work carried out in partnership with other organisations, the request will be treated with the same guidelines that apply to Waverley Borough Council press releases – see Requesting a press release (4.1).
Who to quote in press releases
Waverley’s legal authority to issue publicity is governed by the Local Government Act 1986, as amended by the Local Government Act 1988, and guided by the Local Government Information Unit’s publicity code of conduct. It is made clear that the views of leading Members, who represent Waverley, can be publicised as long as the views are relevant to their position and responsibilities within the council. Officers are restricted to the giving of professional and factual information.
It is Waverley’s policy to quote the relevant portfolio holder in all press releases. The press release will not be issued until the quote has been approved by the individual quoted. If time is critical to the issue of the release and the quoted Member is unavailable to approve their quote, a senior and appropriate Officer will be quoted instead.
Distribution of releases
If a press release is specific to an area eg Farnham, the release will be issued only to the media that cover the area. Press releases that are more general will be issued to all media.
All press releases are forwarded to all Members with e-mail and can be viewed on Waverley’s website.
Number of enquiries
The communications unit receives approximately 450 media enquiries per year. Calls range from requests for background information on planning applications to requests for information on cases where a complainant has gone direct to the press. It is not known how many media calls are made direct to Members.
The communications unit is restricted to providing factual information. When a comment or opinion is required on policy, the relevant portfolio holder will be contacted and where appropriate, a response will be prepared for their approval.
Who is authorised to speak to the media?
When a journalist contacts Waverley Borough Council direct, the communications unit must be the first point of contact for any journalist. This is to ensure a consistent response to issues concerning Waverley business. In the event that a journalist seeks to speak to a member of staff direct they must be referred to the communications office. Where appropriate, media trained Officers can speak to the media. Any Officer contact with the media should be recorded on a press log, which is available via Lotus Notes. A list of media trained Officers, is contained in Appendix C.
When media enquiries are about day-to-day issues, the response will be attributed to a ‘Waverley Borough Council spokesperson’. If the issue is controversial or is particularly topical, the Leader of the Council will be notified and the response will be attributed to him/her.
In the event that a journalist does contact a Member direct, Members are advised not to respond immediately but to allow time to ‘collect their thoughts’. In such a case, the Member should take the journalist’s contact details, the nature of the request and the deadline. Only in exceptional circumstances is it reasonable for a journalist to request a response within a very short timescale. It is important that Members recognise that journalists will often apply pressure in an attempt to get an ‘off the cuff’ response. Such comments are rarely in the interests of the Council or the individual Member.
Political or non-political
Publicity that has been produced with the use of Waverley Borough Council resources must not be designed to influence support for a political party. Therefore, it would not be appropriate, for example, for a Member to issue the media with a political statement/response on official Council Member headed notepaper.
Members can provide the media with a political slant by contacting them independently. Before doing this, Members should establish with their political leader what their party political protocol is regarding contacting the media.
It is a performance indicator target for officers to respond to media enquiries within the deadline given or 12 working hours, whichever is the soonest.
Although it may not be considered a priority, ignoring a media enquiry will not make it go away. Whilst ‘off the cuff’ comments are not advised, intentional delay tactics beyond this will make the journalist suspicious and will damage media relations.
Where both a Member and a media trained Officer are equally qualified to conduct the interview, the Member will normally be approached in the first instance. As time is of the essence with broadcast media, if the Member is unavailable or not contactable, rather than miss the valuable opportunity of an interview, an appropriate Officer will be asked to respond.
Apart from in exceptional circumstances, interviews will not be given on agenda items before a committee meeting.
When an interview bid is made, the communications unit will, where possible, find out the questions the interviewer is likely to ask and the angle from which they are planning to approach the interview. Before the interview, a member of the communications unit will discuss the brief with the interviewee to ensure their replies address the messages that Waverley Borough Council wishes to communicate.
Confidential information should never be released to the media. Regard should be paid at all times to the Code of Conduct for Members.
Quality of photographs
Now that newspapers print in colour and are more competitive, the standard of photography has increased and has become far more creative. Due to limited resources, it is unlikely that a newspaper photographer will be able to attend many of Waverley’s photocalls.
A high standard of photography is key to achieving as much photographic coverage as possible. If the event is important, it is worth discussing with the director of the service whether there is a budget for a professional photographer. If budgets do not permit this, then the communications unit has a digital camera that is available to Officers or Members wishing to take their own photographs. Where possible a member of the communications unit will make themselves available to take photographs. Save for exceptional circumstances, for example emergencies, at least one week’s notice will need to be given.
Bad news stories have implications for Waverley. The communications unit needs to be briefed on any potential bad news story as soon as possible. Forewarned is forearmed and a lot can be done to limit the negative impact of a story. It is important not to under-estimate the power of the media – they will always find out!
To respond or not to respond
Waverley Borough Council will not always be portrayed in a positive way by the press.
Sometimes it may be better not to react in order to avoid prolonging the story’s life. Before taking any action, it is important to assess whether the story is factually incorrect. If, after consultation with the director responsible for the service and/or portfolio holder and a member of the communications unit, it is agreed that a response is appropriate, the following possible courses of action will need to be decided upon:
· Request that the newspaper prints a correction. This should be used sparingly as insisting on a correction could just prolong a negative story and may end up being counter-productive
· A succinct letter to the editor will ensure the correction is published exactly as the council would like to see it
· The communications unit speaks to the journalist concerned to ascertain the facts. It is not in the journalist’s interest to write a factually incorrect story so it is important to identify their source of information to ensure future errors are avoided
· A complaint to the Press Complaints Commission or the Broadcasting Standards Commission
Using the letters page as a forum to exercise ‘right to reply’ should be used only very occasionally. It is not advised that correspondence with complainants takes place through the letters page.