Public sector - PM apologises to child migrants

Campaign: Prime Minister's apology to the nation over child migration

Apology: Child migration
Apology: Child migration

Client: Department of Health
PR team: Bell Pottinger
Timescale: January-February 2010
Budget: £37K plus pro-bono investment

Bell Pottinger was asked by the Department of Health to support the Prime Minister's apology on behalf of the nation for the child migration scheme that ended in the 1960s. Under the scheme, children were often told their parents were dead and were deported without parental consent, and brothers and sisters were separated on arrival at their destination country.

The apology took the form of an oral statement by the PM in the House of Commons, the announcement of a £6m family restoration fund, a personal meeting between the PM, the Health Secretary and former child migrants, a filmed event and a public exhibition in Westminster Hall about the history of child migration.


- To increase public awareness of and understanding about the child migrant story

- To communicate to former child migrants and their family members the nation's remorse

- To raise awareness of the steps being taken to support child migrants to recover from their trauma and reunite with their families

- To raise awareness of the work of the Child Migrant Trust

- To support the former child migrants coming from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and from across the UK to witness the apology.

Strategy and plan

The PR team worked closely with the wider government communications team through three media phases. The first was to give context and set the scene ahead of the apology, by telling the story of child migration and the campaign to gain recognition. Case studies were used to illustrate the background to the story.

The second phase involved communicating the apology and steps being taken to help former child migrants, and the third phase communicated the reaction of former child migrants to the apology.

The PR team provided the media with as much material before the event as possible, to minimise the impact on the former child migrants on the day, and help manage media demands. Materials included pre-recorded interviews and a press pack with historical photography, case studies and a timeline.

On the day of the apology the UK PR team managed a UK and international press office and worked with an Australian PR team to help prepare and manage media around events in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth and Melbourne.

Measurement and evaluation

In total more than 1,070 pieces of media coverage were generated including national press, online and broadcast coverage. Highlights included pieces on the BBC World News, ITV News, This Morning, the Today programme and articles in The Guardian, the Daily Mirror, The Independent and the London Evening Standard.


The Child Migrant Trust is now receiving more than double the number of inquires from people trying to be reunited with family members than it was before the campaign.



This campaign had all the ingredients for a big story: an apologising influential figure, a chance to pick over the sour misdemeanours of an institution's past and horrific living testimonies of what happened to people many years ago.

Unlike the Catholic Church, the comms around the child migrant scandal from Britain's past was well handled. There are several elephant traps: reopening pasts people may want to forget, the complexity of multiple government departments, and different countries that are likely to offer different opinions on how to do this. It could be hard to know where to begin. But the plan was clear and 1,000 hits including opinion-forming outlets and consumer heartlands was a good spread.

Care for those affected was sensitively managed with preinterviews. Minimising demands for case-study fodder was important; this is easy to get wrong. For me there are still a few gaps such as how the social media plans supported the outcomes of the strategy. I could find little on Twitter or other sites. The other one that affects much of the PR industry is some of the result metrics are so big that they can be meaningless. Did they need to reach 260 per cent of 129 million people? Was the doubling of calls to the good work of the Child Migrants Trust one to two or 1,000 to 2,000?

Putting my scepticism and these details to one side, this looks like a well briefed and executed project that managed a complex story very well.

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