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Capturing hearts and minds

The best campaigns capture the public imagination long before they tackle the Government, says Elin Twigge of PLMR.

The past six months have not been easy, with professional lobbyists tarnished by the behaviour of a minority.

The public perception of our sector is of backroom dealings and boasts about access to ministers.

We must tackle those views head on, embrace greater transparency and demonstrate that our engagement with public institutions enhances, rather than subverts, the democratic process.

But we must also put Westminster relations in their rightful place in the public understanding of what we do.

It is vital for any campaign to gain political support, and that becomes essential if legislative change is the end goal.

But political support in principle rarely leads to political action in reality, without wider public buy-in.

A meeting with a minister is by no means a 'job done' for any client.

Parliamentarians have hundreds, if not thousands, of meetings a year with interested parties trying to shape the direction of policy. As such, those that position themselves simply as brokers of access are not only likely to be caught out, they are also unlikely to succeed in the long term.

It is called public affairs for a reason, and the best campaigns capture the public imagination, long before they take the argument to Westminster. The Barnardo's adoption campaign featured in this supplement is a case in point (see pages 4-7).

By first reaching out to the public through the launch of the Fostering and Adoption Week in 2009, Barnardo's raised awareness about the importance of adoption and gathered vital data to inform its long-term strategy.

It was from this initial outreach that the statistics on the length of time it takes Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) children to be adopted emerged - BME children remain in the system three times longer than other children.

Barnardo's focused its message on the fact that both ethnicity and religion should be taken into account, but not cause delays to placements.

With this evidence and real life examples, Barnardo's worked closely with stakeholders to focus on solutions.

With a groundswell of public support, the decision that ministers had to take on adoption became much simpler.

Rather than putting their necks on the line, they found a worked-up 'fairer and faster' solution that captured the public imagination and became one of the success stories of the coalition so far.

Another clear case in point - this time in order to block, rather than instigate new legislation - was the public-led campaign, unified through the grassroots group 38 Degrees, against proposals for a £250m lease of England's forests in 2010-11.

The Save Our Forests campaign began in October 2010 with an online petition by 38 Degrees, which attracted more than 530,000 signatures.

More than 100,000 members of the public emailed or called their MPs about the issue, a people-powered YouGov poll demonstrated that 84 per cent of the public wanted the forests kept in public hands, and more than 30 local groups around the country sprung up in support of the campaign.

Through effectively communicating these results to the ministers who mattered, further backed by a range of national organisations (including The Woodland Trust, National Trust and WWF), and a host of high-profile individuals and MPs, it became impossible for the coalition not to listen.

This was a textbook example of how strong public pressure forced the Government to retreat from its plans and discard a high-profile policy.

Elin Twigge is account director at PLMR.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

What has been your best example of prompting public policy change?

Protection of research and development tax credits for the life sciences sector after the change of Government in 2010.

Fast-forward to 2017. Which MPs will be setting parliamentary agendas and which celebrities will be setting media agendas?

Sparky female contenders from the 2010 intake as they reach Westminster maturity - Lisa Nandy, Rachel Reeves and Louise Mensch. In terms of celebrity, we'll see more of the 'Lumley' effect, as those with gravitas get behind high-profile political campaigns. Eddie Izzard might even be Mayor of London.

 

From PRWeek's public affairs supplement, May 2012

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