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Communications Policy

This policy applies to all of the communication activities of the shared service between South Hams District and West Devon Borough Councils.

Good communication is the responsibility of all of the employed Officers and elected Members of both councils. It is underpinned and supported by a shared Communications Team whose primary function is to communicate the business of the councils as defined in the Corporate Strategy. This includes the councils' themes, objectives and their annual delivery plans.

1.3. Through the Communications Protocol (reviewed January 2016), the Communication Team will support Officers and Members and promote the best practice communication principles of this policy.

2. Audiences

2.1. Our audiences are everyone with whom we communicate and that could be through any medium or channel. They include:

  • Officers
  • Elected Members
  • Residents and prospective residents
  • Organisations and groups
  • Businesses
  • Partners
  • Neighbouring authorities
  • MPs
  • Professional peers and other authorities
  • Tourists and visitors
  • Local, regional, national and trade media

2.2. Letting customers know what their councils are doing for them, what they get for their money and who's responsible for the services they use, underpins what good local government communication is all about.

2.3. This policy will be further supported by a separate internal communications plan. This internal plan will provide Officers with a framework for how we are going to support them through communication and enable them to be able to deliver quality customer-focused services. That plan will adhere to the same communication principles as laid out in this policy.

3. Channels

3.1. South Hams District and West Devon Borough Councils' communicate with residents through a wide variety of channels including:

  • letters,
  • face-to-face,
  • over the phone,
  • over the internet,
  • printed material,
  • events,
  • through media and social media.

3.2. It is the intention of the councils to provide their customers with a wide variety of options, different channels through which they can interact with their council and access services when and how they wish.

3.3. This would include providing customers with the technology to self-serve via the internet. This approach allows customers to take control of their interactions with council services. It also provides more opportunities to have a face-to-face discussion with Officers.

3.4. In a changing digital world where new forms of communications are being continually explored, it is the responsibility of the councils' Communication Team to continually review how they reach their audiences. They will apply the most appropriate method to the right audience at the best time to deliver the best outcome for the customer.

3.5. This policy will be reviewed on an annual basis to ensure it meets the needs of both councils and delivers on the communication goals of the councils' vision and annual delivery plan.

4. Principles

4.1. This policy sets out to ensure that with all Council communications:

  • We are customer-focused, informative and positive in our external communications, actively promoting local democracy, and involving our residents and businesses in decision-making. 
  • The messages we send are transparent, consistent, accurate, clear and timely and in keeping with both councils' vision.
  • We provide an open, professional, fair and efficient service to our media where we will be open, honest and proactive.
  • The councils are committed to open government and a positive working relationship with the media.
  • We protect the reputation of the councils, the Officers and the Members, by supporting them and equipping them with the most up-to-date information.
  • That our communication is legal and adheres to the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity published in March 2011 and other legislation as laid out in the Communication Protocol (reviewed January 2016)

5. Media Protocol

5.1. South Hams District and West Devon Borough Councils Communications Team perform the function of a centralised press office, who have produced a Media Protocol for working with the media. It states that:

5.2. All press releases, statements and photograph calls concerning the business of the councils should be arranged and issued by the Communications Team.

5.3. All media are advised that if they want a comment or statement about matters relating to the business of the councils, they must come through the Communications Team.

5.4. If approached by the media for a comment or statement all elected Members and employed Officers should speak to the Communications Team.

5.5. Nothing in this policy or the protocol precludes Members or political groups from speaking to or contacting the media. Members must however make it clear on whose behalf they are speaking:

  • Officially as an elected Member of the South Hams District or West Devon Borough Council - the Communications Team should be informed before the communication takes place, to ensure Members are fully briefed and supported.
  • Officially on behalf of their particular political group - the Communications Team cannot aid or assist with these communications, they must remain politically neutral.
  • Personally as a Ward or Borough Councillor - Speaking freely to the press about matters arising in a ward or borough is naturally part of what makes a Councillor a spokesperson for the people they represent. The Communications Team would not want to do anything that prevents this from happening. However, when Councillors speak to the press about the business of their Council within their ward, they are advised to seek advice from the Communications Team to ensure that they have the latest information. This could include the latest information on Council processes and responsibilities, an update on a particular issue or a press statement issued by a partner organisation on the same subject. The role of the Communications Team in this respect is to support the Ward Members and to ensure that they give out factually correct information.

5.6. If an elected Member wishes to make a Party Political statement, the Communications Team are not able to help them.

5.7. The Communications Team will respond to enquiries from the media on behalf of both councils in accordance with legislation and the law. It is the Communications Team who are responsible for collating, writing and issuing all press releases on behalf of each council.

5.8. Wherever possible the spokesperson for the Council should be an Elected Member of the Council. Occasionally the Executive Directors, Group Managers and Specialists may be required to respond to the media on projects and initiatives they have a direct involvement in. This will usually be to answer questions of fact and provide technical information about their areas of expertise.

5.9. Officers should not speak to the media about the business of the Council without speaking to the Communications Team.

5.10. When taking photographs or videos to support communications, all Officers should be aware that when the story involves taking photographs of children or young people, formal permission must be sought from the parent or guardian responsible for the child/young person. With older children (16-18 years old), it is good practice to seek their permission directly as well as asking their parent or guardian. Before the image can be used a consent form must be provided.

5.11. If there is an occasion where we can increase the reach of our messages by also issuing press releases to local parishes, parish magazines, and/or Facebook group editors the Communications Team will issue the release to those specific groups of people. This allows us to target locally specific messages to reach certain communities.

5.12. As part of the communications planning, the Communications Champions will be encouraged to think about their audiences and how we can use all of the technology at our disposal. This includes the Experian Data to target our messages to reach specific demographics and groups of people. This work will help inform when and where the press releases get issues.

5.13. Mistakes should be acknowledged and apologised for 'on behalf of the Council' where appropriate and where we are able to do so following discussions with the Executive Directors and/or Leader in conjunction with the Lead Specialist.

5.14. There are occasions where the media coverage of a particular issue is incorrectly reported. After discussion with the Communications Team, Executive Directors and Lead Specialist, contact should be made with the media concerned to redress the balance.

5.15. Embargoes should only be used when news releases are linked to an event or specific date, when an issue of confidentially requires it; or when it is required by a third party.

5.16. With negative stories in the media the councils take a realistic approach correcting matters of fact only and not getting embroiled in a public debate.

6. Public Meetings

6.1 In 2014 the Government introduced new rights by the Openness of Local Government Bodies 2014, which would enable members of the public to know how decisions are made

6.2 The councils' support the principle of transparency and openness and the new rights which allow use of modern technology and communication methods such as filming, audio-recording, blogging and tweeting to report the proceedings of the meetings of their councils and other local government bodies.

7. The Law

7.1 All communication must be lawful the following laws may apply to the communications activities of both councils.

7.2. All of our activities are governed by the Local Government Acts 1972 and 1986 as well as the updated Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity published in March 2011. A copy of the Code of Recommended Practice is available here.

7.3. It states that Local Authority publicity MUST:

  • be lawful
  • be cost-effective
  • be objective
  • be even-handed
  • be appropriate
  • have regard to equality and diversity
  • be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity.

7.4 Other legislation also has a bearing on communications activities and these include:

  • Data Protection Act 1998 (individuals rights over personal information),
  • the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the right to obtain information held by public authorities)
  • laws of defamation - slander (the spoken word) and libel (written).
  • Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Any questions concerning this policy should be directed to the Communications Team: Tel: 01803 861368


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