Why did Heathrow's comms plan fly while Gatwick was left on the tarmac?

The campaign for a third runway at Heathrow succeeded because it had a better evidence base than Gatwick's bid, although many comms challenges remain before the project finally takes off, PR experts have told PRWeek.

Why did Heathrow's comms plan fly while Gatwick was left on the tarmac?

The Government today approved Heathrow’s bid, much to the dismay of many senior Conservative politicians including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who called it "undeliverable", and London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, who labelled the decision "catastrophic".

Other politicians have criticised the plan. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it’s the "wrong decision for London and Britain", and Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said it would be "devastating for local residents".

The decision represents an impressive victory for Heathrow, particularly given the opposition from many politicians and local campaigners. Theresa May has previously spoken against the plan, saying in 2009 that many constituents in her seat of Maidenhead would be "devastated" about such a move.

The Heathrow campaign still faces many challenges. Johnson told the BBC today: "I fear we are going to see an inevitable fight in the courts."

PRWeek asked PR professionals why they thought Heathrow's campaign was successful, and to predict the challenges ahead:

Mark Gallagher, founder, Pagefield

"Heathrow had an objectively better case and always had its nose in front in this race. They used this foundation to employ good campaigning principles: a disciplined approach, simple and positive messages such as ‘gateway to the world’ underpinned by facts and big numbers. This was all supported by good use of advertising and local campaign group engagement.

"There are multiple challenges ahead. democracy is one. The fact that the UK has a powerful system of local representation will see fierce resistance at a grassroots level. Heathrow also has to consider the fact that this decision could precipitate the first fissure in May’s Cabinet, with Justine Greening and Boris Johnson against the decision. She’s also being opposed by her own council, Maidenhead.

"The risk of a judicial review also looms large. There will likely be a lengthy legal challenge to this which could frustrate process much in the same way that judicial reviews were used against Cuadrilla to block shale gas exploration. Heathrow will need to make sure they continue to win ‘hearts and minds’ throughout any such process."

Kevin Craig, CEO, PLMR (recently led the successful campaign to expand London City Airport)

"Heathrow won because it had a stronger evidence base for its economic claims than Gatwick – winning the backing of [Airports Commission chairman Sir Howard] Davies. It had a positive long-term message for the UK as a whole and was quick to adapt, promising ‘Brexit boost’ air routes after the referendum result. More businesses and MPs across the country supported Heathrow.

"By contrast, Gatwick focused on the negatives of expansion at Heathrow – noise, air quality, taxpayer cost – which appealed to the west London nimby and MPs, but failed to get cut-through nationally.

"However, it’s far from over. A huge public relations exercise is needed as legal challenges loom and Sadiq, Boris and Zac line up against Heathrow. The airline sector back Heathrow, but don’t want to foot the bill and such tensions have a habit of becoming a public war of words. This is the end of the beginning but..."

James Acheson-Gray, MD, APCO Worldwide in the UK

"From a comms perspective the Heathrow campaign feels evidential and factual, garnering good third party support; whereas Gatwick seemed to focus more on its ability to move quickly and the shortcomings of Heathrow. That said, Gatwick started as the underdog, clearly running a very effective campaign and I suspect the result was a lot closer as a result.

"What is most interesting is what will come next. There are likely to be waves of protests at a local level, during the planning process, with powerful environmental groups who are sure to fight hard.

"Given the potential price the government could pay in terms of marginal seats in west London, the odds on Theresa May calling a general election before she has to have definitely lengthened today. This decision could also open the floodgates for further airport expansion – the case for Gatwick was strong, there is political pain going to be taken in the next couple of years, so why not do both? Brexit, people fear, will isolate the UK. Building more airport capacity sends a powerful message that Britain has not retreated into its shell."

Matt Sheldon, Newington

"London’s airport stand-off has been one of the great PR tussles in recent times. Deep-seated local resistance to Heathrow and skilful campaigning from Gatwick made this a far tighter contest than the underlying economics behind each airport’s expansion case would have suggested.

"Heathrow now has a ferocious local battle on its hands on the detail of the deal – their focus will not just be on the series of legal challenges they face, but winning over the hearts and minds (and wallets) of the hundreds of thousands of west London residents who will be directly affected by the airport’s expansion."

Third option

A third option under consideration, extending Heathrow’s northern runway, was from the so-called "Heathrow Hub" campaign, headed by former Concorde pilot Jock Lowe. The campaign had PR and public affairs support from Maitland and Boscobel & Partners.

James Devas, associate partner at Maitland, told PRWeek: "Although our client’s proposal ultimately was not selected we can be proud that Heathrow Hub’s extended runway concept remained in the running until the final decision on the UK’s aviation capacity challenge.

"Jock Lowe’s proposal has a lot of supporters and - as an innovative, British solution to what has been an ongoing infrastructure conundrum for this country – deserves recognition for its enterprising approach built on his lifetime of service to the aviation industry."

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