NEWS ANALYSIS Questioning the cost of flying high

When a group of protesters set up the Camp for Climate Action to highlight their message, BAA had to defend the aviation industry's image. Claire Murphy reports from a field near Heathrow on the media relations battle.

Media engagement: tour offered
Media engagement: tour offered

‘I’m not a professional press person,’ said 24-year-old Sophie Stephens, one of the ten-strong media liaison crew assigned to journalists during the first daily media tour of the Camp for
Climate Action.

Stephens and her protester colleagues may not have received any kind of traditional grounding in PR, but they proved adept at controlling the media scrum that turned up to greet the protesters as they set up camp. Journalists were prevented from entering, which created even more interest for the press conference the following day.

Stephens needed no prompting when asked what her key messages were (see below); indeed these messages were consistently echoed by other protesters on various points during the hour-long tour of the camp. She was only momentarily thrown when reporters from The Times and The Daily Telegraph asked what her parents thought about her actions. ‘They are supportive,’ she finally conceded. She was also careful not to be quoted on anything that could be proved to be untrue, swiftly altering her claim that the camp was carbon-neutral to ‘carbon-minimal’.

Stephens was keen to persuade reporters that the police were acting inappropriately: ‘It’s totally irresponsible to bandy around words like terrorism in the current climate. They searched a car that was transporting two crates of soya milk and 1,000 loaves of bread.’

It was clear the protesters were eager to regain control of the media agenda. The previous evening the Evening Standard published a story alleging protesters were planning to mount hoax bomb alerts at Heathrow. The camp’s media team denied any such plans and reported the newspaper to the Press Complaints Commission.

At a press conference, a camp spokesman invited Standard editor Veronica Wadley to come and ‘see that we are armed with nothing more dangerous than peer-reviewed science’.

Over at BAA headquarters, Damon Hunt, head of media relations for airport operations, was also in full media briefing mode. His five-strong team had to call on two freelancers plus ten staffers from government relations, community relations and internal comms departments in order to maintain two shifts for the 24-hour cover needed to cope with the story. Although much of the reactive work was dealt with internally, Hunt tapped into the resources of Regester Larkin to help the team with ‘pre-positioning messages’. Hunt’s team also updated the company’s website, with extra emphasis on BAA’s activities to combat climate change.

On the first day of the camp, while the protesters dealt with an estimated 150-strong media contingent, the BAA team took around 100 calls an hour.

Effective campaigning
The protesters eventually chose a low-key day of direct action, camping outside BAA’s Heathrow offices for 24 hours. But they still managed to score media hits with stunts elsewhere. The protest group Plane Stupid sent protestors dressed as red herrings to carbon-offsetting companies Climate Care and the CarbonNeutral Company. Spokesman Joss Garman told journalists that being involved with these companies ‘is like being a member of the RSPCA and then going home and kicking a dog’.

So how successful were both sides? Despite attempts by protesters to limit camp coverage to the shepherded media tours, some ‘undercover’ reporters (notably Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times) succeeded in reporting from inside the tents. But the most damaging allegation Hart unearthed was that a few wheelie bins may have been ‘borrowed’ from Lambeth Council.

The protesters earned some unlikely backers. Daily Mail columnist Suzanne Moore took up the protesters’ line about the number of unnecessary flights taken by business people, while the paper’s science editor wrote a feature under the headline ‘I hate to say it, but the eco-warriors of Heathrow are right.’

Surprisingly, most opposition to the camp could be found online, with bloggers backing BAA’s message that aviation only contributes to six per cent of the UK’s CO2 emissions.

Ultimately though, this was a high-profile battle in a much bigger war, and so far the spoils are shared.

KEY MESSAGES

Protesters...
- The planned third runway at Heathrow should not open;

- Government and businesses cannot be trusted to take action to save the environment – ordinary people must act to put the brakes on harmful development;

- The camp’s purpose is to educate and demonstrate sustainable living.


BAA...
- We respect people’s democratic right to protest;

- Protesters should not interfere with the rights of the travelling public – and targeting the airport will cause inconvenience to passengers;

- Aviation is not an enormous contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

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