24 February 2023

Government advertising

Government advertising is when public funds are used to publicise a government policy, product, service or activity.

Successive governments have chosen to exercise voluntary restraint in relation to some government advertising in the pre-election period.

During the pre-election period, public servants must be alert to the heightened political sensitivity around government advertising and any perception that government funds are being used to pay for publicity for party political purposes.

Advertising and publicity campaigns

The Guidelines for Government Advertising apply to both Ministers’ and the public sector’s public communications, including:

  • publicity for ministerial or official announcements
  • information about services
  • paid publicity campaigns or launches
  • information about consultations.

Public funds must never be used for party political purposes in government communications. All government communications material, including advertising and publicity campaigns, must:

  • be accurate, factual, truthful, fair, honest and impartial
  • use unbiased and objective language that is free from partisan promotion of government policy or political argument
  • be lawful and proper

Additionally, such material must deal only with matters:

  • that the Government has direct responsibility for
  • where there is an identified and justifiable public information need

Justifiable information needs fall into four broad categories: informing the public about government policies, informing the public about government services, advising the public of their entitlements or responsibilities, or encouraging the public to adopt behaviour that is in the public interest.

Public sector agencies should consider the purpose, timing and audience of any advertising of new or existing government services, policies and entitlements.

Deferring some advertising in the pre-election period may sometimes be appropriate. However, the risk that public funds may appear to be used to fund political advertising has to be considered in the light of continuing government business as usual.

Examples of business-as-usual activity includes publicity and advertising campaigns that inform people about government services or that set out the public’s entitlements and responsibilities, such as:

  • road safety campaigns
  • providing public health information
  • advising the public of access to services and entitlements, or obligations where these are official implemented government policy
  • promoting consumption of New Zealand export goods and services offshore.

On the other hand, advertising a service or entitlement in a manner that lacks detail or uses emotive language or rhetoric is unlikely to meet the standard of fair, accurate and impartial advertising.

Particular care is needed around advertising that presents a vision for New Zealand’s future, where this could be seen as publicity for party political purposes. For example, emotive slogans such as “rebuilding New Zealand”, “Keep New Zealand working”, or “the kind of country we are” are unlikely to be appropriate government advertising messages.

Care is also needed around the form and style of advertising during the pre-election period, to avoid any confusion with party political advertising. For example, an advertising campaign that uses colours and images that closely resemble those used by political parties should be avoided.

Read the Guidelines for Government Advertising.

See Case study scenario 1: Public sector agency advertising a future vision for New Zealand.

See Case study scenario 2: Advertising by a public sector agency of new products and services.

See Case study scenario 6: Social media campaign to publicise community services.

See Case study scenario 8: Publicity of future services and benefits.

See the Commission's supplementary guidance on Government Advertising 

Government consultation and surveys 

The Guidelines for Government Advertising also apply to discussion and consultative documents and materials. Care should be taken to ensure the content and presentation of consultation material is accurate, strictly impartial, factual and free from partisan promotion of government policy and political argument. Targeted consultation with those affected is likely to be more appropriate than general consultation with the wider public.

For example, the following consultation activities will generally be appropriate:

  • agency consultation with key stakeholders around proposed operational improvements, to inform advice to Cabinet
  • informal engagement by an agency around regulatory frameworks, to inform briefings to incoming Ministers (BIMs)
  • agency workshops with sector representatives to discuss options for reform.

Surveys can continue to be commissioned by agencies, provided that these are designed and run in a way that is politically neutral.

Read the Public Service Commission’s advice on the political neutrality of surveys.

See Case study scenario 9: Consultation on proposed government policy that is politically controversial.

Media comment

When corresponding with the media, agencies must take care to ensure that:

  • communications material is factual and politically neutral
  • the Minister is kept informed
  • information and advice requests are handled promptly and by the most appropriate person, entity, or Minister.

Public servants need to identify whether issues are primarily political or operational, and whether they are handled by the Minister or by the agency.

Political matters relate to the functions of the Minister. Ministers are responsible for determining and promoting policy, defending policy decisions, and answering in the House on both policy and operational matters. Chief executives are responsible for operational matters. Ministers are generally not involved in departments’ day-to-day operations.

Requests for information (separate to requests for comment or a response to claims and/or developing issues) are requests for information as defined in the OIA.  Media teams need to have a working knowledge of the provisions of the OIA, including the basic grounds for withholding information or refusing requests.

Requests for publicly available information or information that is easily on hand should be actioned without delay, typically such requests should not be treated as a ‘formal OIA’ which needs to go through a particular process.

See Case study scenario 7: Correction of misinformation.

Agencies with an independent role

Agencies and staff with a statutorily independent role will often need to continue to perform that role through the pre-election and post-election periods. For example, some agencies have an advocacy role under their legislation to promote particular rights or issues. These agencies should undertake their role in a way that does not involve them entering the political debate. For example, care is needed around publicity that could be perceived to align with the policies of political parties.

The following steps can help avoid the risk of an agency’s impartiality and neutrality being questioned:

  • when corresponding with the media, agencies should ensure their comments focus on their statutory role (such as promoting human rights or climate action), rather than advocacy for political parties’ policies or encouraging any political party to adopt the agency’s policy as its own
  • personal opinions can be expressed but need to be very clear that any comments are not made on behalf of the agency or government
  • some policy proposals of the agency may be better pursued during the formal budget process and could be presented in a briefing to the incoming Minister post-election.

See Case study scenario 4: Staff commenting in the media on the current government’s performance.

Using social media in an official capacity

Public servants using social media on behalf of an agency must follow the rules and policies that apply. The Guidelines for Government Advertising apply to all agency communications where public funds are spent, and that could include social media. Agencies will have their own social media policy. Public servants must be specifically authorised by their agency to use social media on the agency’s behalf. In communicating on social media, it is important to be clear about the agency’s role and purpose.

Read the Public Service Commission’s guidance for public servants’ official use of social media.

See Case studys scenario 6: Social media campaign to publicise community services.

Programme launches and events

The nature and timing of programme launches and events in the pre-election period, especially those that are high profile or involve Ministers or MPs, must be carefully considered and managed to ensure the public sector remains politically neutral. This may require an assessment of the speakers, the topics, the audience, and the nature and location of the venue.

Agencies can take steps to reduce the risk that launches or events may somehow call into question the political neutrality of the agency. It is important to ensure the event’s supporting material is strictly impartial and factual and the agency does not become drawn into any political aspects of an event.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to defer high-profile events until post-election.

If managed carefully, the following examples may be appropriate during the pre-election period – but will always depend on the specific circumstances:

  • the release by an agency of a technical report on its website, accompanied by a press release by the responsible Minister
  • a media event for a ministerial announcement to recognise the completion of a major project, involving Ministers, public servants and community representatives
  • an agency chief executive attending an international meeting of Ministers on behalf of the relevant public sector agency (not as the Minister’s representative).

Public servants appearing in publicity material

Public servants need to be, and be seen to be, politically neutral in their official capacity. Public servants can appear in publicity material of the Government conducting its business, provided they are not impliedly endorsing a political party.

It is appropriate for an agency or Minister to publish material of this nature in order to communicate factual and impartial information about the activities of the public sector and Ministers in their official capacities. For example:

  • video footage could show the work done by public servants in carrying out a government policy
  • public servants should usually be able to appear in the background of video footage of a Minister
  • public servants can be filmed on their work premises undertaking their normal business, provided this is done by media, ministerial staff or the agency.

However, it would not be appropriate for a public servant to agree to feature in party political material in their official capacity where this implies endorsement by the public servant of the political party. To do so would compromise their political neutrality and by implication that of the public sector as a whole. This will require a careful assessment of factors such any political branding, whether the public servant has a high public profile, and whether the material is already public.

See Case study scenario 5: Staff appearing in publicity material that involves politicians.

Election day advertising

Political advertising is banned on election day. The Electoral Act 1993 prohibits any activity on election day that may interfere with or influence voters, including marches, speeches or public statements. Public servants must not post political messages on social media, including messages about referendum options, or share political content, if it breaches the ban on political advertising.