Campaigns Showcase: Public Affairs - Westbourne Communications - HS2 supporters put their case on the line

Campaign: The Campaign for High Speed Rail
Client: Businesses and rail unions
PR team: Westbourne Communications
Timescale: February 2011-January 2012
Budget: £100,000

A government project to build a high-speed rail link, High Speed Two (HS2), between London and the North was under threat after a public consultation that was dominated by opposition to the scheme. It was controversial because the planned route included parts of the Chilterns countryside. The well-organised and well-funded opposition meant there was a possibility the Government would scrap the policy. Westbourne was brought in to get widespread approval for the scheme and change public perception by balancing the media debate.

Objective

- To ensure the Government committed to building HS2 after the consultation.

Strategy and plan

Westbourne launched The Campaign for High Speed Rail website in February 2011 and its main strategy was to build a coalition of supporters, challenge opposition claims and inform the public about the benefits of high-speed rail.

It decided a campaign involving just ministers and officials would not change public opinion. The PR team created a coalition of supporters from sectors with different political views, such as economists, trade unionists and the public, as well as MPs. A Twitter account was set up and regional events were held.

An all-party parliamentary group for High Speed Rail was created, with 70 members. It set up two photocalls with MPs outside Parliament fronted by celebrities.

Another vital part of the campaign involved challenging anti-HS2 messages. Its rebuttal unit monitored all forms of the media and built relationships with key journalists. It responded to negative letters and produced a 'myth-busting' document.

Instead of focusing the public message on reducing journey times, as the Government was, Westbourne based the campaign on the economic benefits, such as modernising Britain's railways and HS2's ability to meet demand for more trains, create jobs and improve connections to the Midlands, the North and Scotland.

It also ran rallies through a 'yes to jobs' open-top bus tour across cities including Leeds, London and Birmingham, attended by MPs, business people and the public.

Measurement and evaluation

The campaign gathered support from 1,000 businesses, including Greggs, Morrisons and regional companies. Supporters of HS2 endorsed a letter campaign to newspapers across the country. One sent to The Daily Telegraph was signed by 100 business, and 30 economists signed another to the Financial Times.

Over a seven-day period in January 2012, the campaign generated front-page stories in The Daily Telegraph and regional papers including the Yorkshire Post. The campaign's website received 3,000 hits on average per month.

Results

A postcard campaign to the public received 12,000 positive responses. In January 2012, the Government announced it had decided to carry on the HS2 project and develop the railway at a cost of £32bn.

HINDSIGHT - JAMES BETHELL, DIRECTOR, WESTBOURNE COMMUNICATIONS

What's in a name? From the outset, the name High Speed Two miscommunicated the core benefits of high-speed rail.

The biggest infrastructure investment for an entire generation was sold on the basis of cutting a few minutes off a train journey.

HS2 was instigated by a very evangelical core of high-level political supporters who got the ball rolling for the engineers, who then pulled out their maps and started to project-plan.

While the project had got itself off the starting blocks, it meant that selling the benefits to the public failed to keep pace with its engineering and design.

And in a time of iPhones, e-petitions and Twitter, large-scale infrastructure projects cannot be built on the shoulders of political support and engineering expertise alone.

With hindsight, the lesson for the sponsors of big projects is to sell the vision from the outset. The engineers and comms experts need to sit down around a table at the start and plan together.

And a better balance needs to be found between the formality of the inevitable public consultations and the informality of dialogue and consensus-building with the key supporters who will help to take a project forward.

Only if projects spell out the real benefits for normal people will they attract vital popular support. They might get off the starting-block quickly, but if they fail to articulate the benefits properly they will get nowhere near the finishing line.

IMPACT

- Signed up more than 1,000 businesses to support HS2.

- Set up an all-party parliamentary group with 79 active parliamentarians.

- Had hundreds of hits in the national and regional press.

- The website attracted 3,000 hits on average per month.

- Organised a bus tour of Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and London.

- Provided balance, challenged misinformation and changed the terms of the debate.

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