Rural lobby widens its PR offensive

More than 400,000 people marched through London last week to protest the Government's attitude to rural communities, presenting a massive PR opportunity for organiser the Countryside Alliance. Ian Hall reports.

When the Countryside Alliance (CA) was formed five years ago, it had a simple message: to oppose a ban on fox hunting and other forms of hunting with dogs. But today, with an array of other rural interests taken into its fold, the CA faces a tough communications challenge to convince its detractors it is no longer a single-issue campaigner.

The alliance now concerns itself with most issues that affect the 'rural way of life', such as the declining services and subsidies that have left rural Britain - devastated by foot and mouth, BSE and the problems of tourism - feeling ignored by urbanites and government.

For comms director Nigel Henson, his five full-time staff at the alliance's south London press office and three regional media relations officers, the weeks leading up to Sunday's 'Liberty and Livelihood' march were a busy period indeed. Months before the march two additional press officers were brought in on a part-time basis to cope with added media interest.

No agency was hired to help with PR surrounding the march, although, among others, Brunswick has been used for 'occasional tactical advice' and PPS Group has been retained for public affairs work in the past.

On Sunday itself, around ten staff from other CA departments were drafted in to help full-time PROs 'marshal publicity aspects' of the event.

Four giant screens were located on the route of the march, broadcasting live pictures of the marchers and five-minute-long film loops showing footage of elements of rural life that are under threat.

The CA used a room at the Institute of Directors for a breakfast press conference early on Sunday morning to 'spell out precisely the reasons for the march'. Six PR staff were stationed in a room at the IoD throughout Sunday, to 'monitor the media' and contact news outlets that were producing what CA saw as inaccurate coverage.

A variety of spokespeople from different organisations under the CA banner were wheeled out in a specific plan to 'neutralise' the arguments of detractors, such as animal-rights groups. 'It is an irony that the people who accuse us of being a single-issue body are the real single-issue campaigners,' argues Henson.

But Daily Telegraph environment editor Charles Clover says: 'It has not managed to keep consistency of its message. For these marches it seems to get overtaken by logistics. It has produced a lot of waffle about "assaults on the countryside". This may be a deliberate attempt to blur the picture away from fox hunting.'

Indeed, rural affairs minister Alun Michael is reported as saying the protest was 'incoherent', with no clarity as to whether it was simply about hunting or about wider rural issues.

In the CA's defence, Henson says: 'We have coherent policies across the rural agenda. We have been making ourselves heard to the media and civil servants.'

Henson points to varying campaigning successes in the past five years, such as on the Countryside Rights of Way Bill. He says: 'It was going to give ramblers the right to roam on private property in the dead of night. There were also issues with liability for accidents. We managed to rectify the imbalance between the rights of ramblers and the rights of people who live in the countryside.'

Last week, the press made much of news that boarders at top public schools would be given the day off to join the march. And the Independent on Sunday's front-page picture of a huntsman swigging champagne (below a headline stating that one of the reasons for the march was increasing social deprivation) must have made the CA's PR team wince, keen as it is to stress that the organisation represents a cross-section of Britain's rural community.

Henson estimates that of the marchers, only around one third were primarily motivated by the possible ban on fox-hunting. But pro-hunt slogans seemed to outnumber banners with other grievances and hunting green and tweed were very much in evidence.

Henson says he has been 'delighted' with the coverage. He says there have been 'very few articles touting the old stereotypes' and admitting it would be 'disingenuous' to steer the media away from ostentatiously pro-hunting types. And he is determined that he will not let the 'awful sneering' of the CA's 'brickbats' get him down. 'Even the Sunday Mirror, which is against hunting, gave us a supportive leader,' he adds.

Going forward, the CA will continue to strive to push the message that it has moved away from its origins as a single-issue body. And although the march is now history, the CA will not take its foot off the campaigning pedal. It has presented a ten-point action plan to Number 10, with suggestions for how the Government should show 'positive intent' towards rural communities.

But with a proposal to severely regulate or ban the sport set to be included in the Queen's Speech later this year, fox hunting will continue to grab the media's attention. And it seems likely that the CA's message will focus again on the organisation's founding raison d'etre.

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