The debate about political advertising is heating up as we head towards the pre-election or purdah period for the general election in December. And public sector PR professionals need to be on their guard to ensure they give the best politically neutral advice argues Mandy Pearse, Chair of the CIPR’s Local Public Services Group.

Twitter’s move to ban political advertising raises all sorts of questions. While on the surface it appears a black and white issue – take the money or not. Defining what is a political advert may become harder than Jack Dorsey thinks in this nuanced, subversive online media world in which we live.
Facebook meanwhile sticks its fingers in its ears happily taking money from anyone for advertising no questions asked. Both Google and Facebook are now facing calls to voluntarily suspend political advertising in the run up to the general election.
And our government stands accused of trying to subvert rules about using public money for political advertising through its My Town adverts on Facebook which did not reference the Government department yet appeared to target political messaging on funding at marginal Brexit constituencies. These have now been removed by Facebook after widespread criticism as they now consider them to have breached their own rules.
Facebook introduced Ad Library to supposedly provide transparency but adverts aren’t fact checked and Ad Library doesn’t report on spending or targeting so it is in fact less than transparent.

In fact, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee commissioned a report on Disinformation and Fake News earlier this year which called for:

  • Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by independent regulator
  • Regulator given powers to launch legal action against companies breaching code
  • Government to reform current electoral communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in UK elections
  • Social media companies obliged to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation

Further finds that:

  • Electoral law ‘not fit for purpose’
  • Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws

Damien Collins MP, Chair of theCommittee, said: “Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use everyday.”

So would removing political advertising from the digital space create a more even playing field?
And if it did why not go further and remove all political advertising regardless of medium and get each party to rely on its ability to get its message out through campaigning?
But propagandists can manipulate the media narrative with Lakoffian framing to distract from the real issues as noted here in Stephen Waddington’s blog, politicians misuse photo opportunities with police officers or insidiously undermine PR staff in the public sector creating mistrust in public sector communications.
The reality is campaigns even without paid for advertising don’t come for free. An army of activists and infrastructure is required – to provide venues for rallies, PA systems, telephone banks and create online/virtual groups.
The last of these is the most insidious. We have seen extensive use of closed WhatsApp and Messenger groups being used in elections in India, Brazil and Nigeria.
Using false personas troll farms build a following while not being overtly political, create groups and then start manipulating views and opinions by spreading fear of the other.
Demonise the opposition, spread false accusations, stir up community hatred, incite action but never directly invite violence. The technology is new but the tactics are right out of the Goebbels’ playbook.
So where does professional PR sit in all this?
PR, in my view, should be a force for good. It is not about spin or manipulation. I don’t recognise that as the role of PR professionals in the public sector.
Where we use behavioural insight and data, we do it to encourage people to take steps which we believe will improve their lives.
Political parties may genuinely believe that their worldview and policies will bring a better society. Those working in the public service in all branches of government have a duty to be agnostic as public servants and to apply ethical judgement as PR professionals.
We need to follow through the consequences of policy, use critical analysis and make a judgement on the efficacy of the outcome before committing to deliver a campaign with or without paid for advertising.
Those of us who commit to a professional code such as CIPR’s need to take step back and test campaign proposals for ethical communication standards.
 It’s our job to ask the hard questions not just take the money otherwise we are no better than propagandists, the troll farms and Mark Zuckerberg

By mpearse

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