Campaign: 'No' lobby sees off North-East assembly - Public Affairs

Campaign: Vote 'no' in the North-East referendum for a regional assembly

Client: North East Says No

PR teams: Recognition PR/in-house team

Timescale: August-November 2004

Budget: Less than £10,000

The Electoral Commission decided to hold a referendum on whether a regional assembly should be set up in the North-East. Local businessman John Elliott formed North East Says No (NESNO) to oppose the assembly and drafted in Recognition PR to persuade the people of the North-East to vote 'no' in the referendum. Objective

To secure a 'no' vote in the referendum for a North-East regional assembly.

Strategy and Plan

The team decided that a priority would be to highlight the weaknesses of the Draft Regional Assembly Bill and to demonstrate that an assembly would have no real power, since the Government could always veto its decisions.

NESNO spokespeople therefore took copies of the draft bill to interviews with local media to explain its position and referred to it when contradicting opponents' arguments.

The 'yes' and 'no' campaigns were launched at a press conference held by the Electoral Commission. It was the only press conference NESNO took part in. As an alternative to press conferences, it created several PR stunts to convey the campaign's message in a populist way.

To emphasise the political powerlessness of the assembly, it inflated a giant white elephant on the day Chancellor Gordon Brown visited the North-East to discuss the proposed assembly's economic strategy.

This provided local news media with a humorous image that would contrast well with Brown's speech about the economy.

Other stunts included burning and distributing £1m of counterfeit money to illustrate the expense of the assembly, and staging a fake construction site to demonstrate that an expensive assembly building might need to be built. The team also put the media in touch with two North-East residents who were actually called Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and were voting 'no'.

Since the 'yes' campaign was using celebrities and high-profile politicians to attract media attention, NESNO did the opposite. It refused the endorsement of famous North-East residents such as Sting and William Hague because it felt that if celebrities backed its argument, it would distract the media from the argument itself. It also wanted to take an anti-politician stance to stress the expense of paying the salaries of 25 assembly staff who, NESNO argued, would be powerless.

Around 20 debates staged in front of local media involving the PM's and Chancellor's namesakes.

Measurement and Evaluation

During the three weeks that people could vote by post, NESNO estimates that it achieved one or two articles every day in regional papers, one item a night on BBC TV and BBC radio, one item every other night on ITV, one piece every week in a regional Sunday paper and about three items a week on the five local commercial radio stations.

NESNO also helped convince the Darlington & Stockton Times and the Sunderland Echo to take a 'vote no' stance.

Results

Seventy-eight per cent of voters voted against the North-East assembly.

Around 48 per cent of the region's 1.9 million voters turned out to vote.

'NESNO's campaign was very effective because it picked issues that had resonance for the public and thumped them home,' says Northern Echo senior reporter Dan Jenkins.

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