CAMPAIGN: Midland Expressway overcomes toll trouble - Media Relations

Campaign: Opening of the M6 Toll road Client: Midland Expressway (MEL) PR team: The Red Consultancy Timescale: October-December 2003 Budget: Undisclosed

The UK's first toll motorway, the M6 Toll, opened in December 2003, offering an alternative to the notoriously gridlocked M6 around Birmingham.

Objectives

To demonstrate the M6 Toll's value for money, outline the phased opening process, ensure key messages were accurately reported and avoid a wider debate about the future of UK roads.

Strategy and Plan

Faced with limited national interest and negative local perception, Red guarded against the M6 Toll being embroiled in the wider road policy debate by telling media that the new road was a solution to a specific problem, and that private finance, not taxpayers' money, covered its £900m cost.

As construction neared its end, Red chose to emphasise that the M6, designed for 72,000 vehicles a day, was carrying up to 180,000 a day, and that car drivers could choose the M6 Toll if they felt saving 45 minutes was worth £2.

For local media, Red highlighted the road's benefits in terms of job creation and for companies moving to the M6 Toll corridor. A further important audience was the haulage industry media, concerned at the £10 charge for lorries. Red ensured that MEL's discussions with leading hauliers, and their responses, were highlighted.

As a precise opening date had not been given, Red recommended a pre-launch media briefing at MEL's Staffordshire headquarters in the final stages of construction. The media learned that, for safety reasons, the road would open initially to local traffic, then five days later link with the M6.

When MEL said the road would open before Christmas, an outline strategy, agreed before the pre-launch event, was refined. Red worked to balance the media's desire to cover the story with the laws and safety requirements governing their presence on a motorway. After a safety briefing at MEL's offices, the media were taken to the main toll plaza to see transport secretary Alistair Darling open the road.

Measurement and Evaluation

Between 9 and 13 December, the M6 Toll featured in 62 articles in national newspapers, including The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and The Sun.

Around 58 national broadcast news items featured the road on BBC1, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky. Regionally, there were 357 print articles and 247 radio and TV mentions.

Red's evaluation of the coverage by reach showed that 32 per cent of print coverage and 22 per cent of broadcast by reach was positive, with 59 per cent and 74 per cent respectively neutral. Just nine per cent of print and four per cent of broadcast coverage was negative; by message, 23 per cent of coverage mentioned time savings, 15 per cent price and 13 per cent choice.

Results

In its launch week, the M6 Toll website saw a ten-fold increase in traffic, the customer information line received a 20-fold increase in calls and MEL received a month's worth of enquiries about multiple tag accounts.

Independent research showed that unprompted awareness of the road had risen from six per cent in October 2002 to 68 per cent in the West Midlands and 62 per cent nationally after the road opened; 74 per cent of drivers correctly said the cost for a car was £2. Around 35 per cent of motorists said they would be likely to use the M6 Toll.

'The problem was getting some idea when it was going to open,' says BBC news transport correspondent Tom Symonds. 'At the second briefing there was no willingness to give us an off-the-record steer.

'But it was pretty well handled on the day. Red was very accommodating and gave us access to all the top people at MEL.'

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