Despite its rich cultural life and night scene, Brixton has had to contend with an image problem of street dealing and drug-related violence.
A decision by local officers to relax the policing of softer drugs, such as cannabis, appears to have added to the area's reputation. Yet, despite criticism from some quarters, Lambeth Police were quick to justify the policy, saying it would leave more time to tackle the real drug problem - crack and, to a lesser extent, heroin dealing.
Last July, a project set up by Lambeth Council with local police and community groups, was awarded £1.6m by the Home Office's Communities Against Drugs programme - to be spent over an eight-month period in a campaign named CrackOut.
The money was spent on targeting crack houses and street dealers, evicting dealers from flats, same-day clearing of drug paraphernalia, tackling fly-tipping, abandoned cars and graffiti, improved street lighting and new CCTV cameras, drugs education in schools, support for families with substance misuse problems and other community initiatives.
To publicise the CrackOut campaign and encourage local residents and business people to support the local police and council. To win the 'hearts and minds' of local people and convince them dealers would be prosecuted and removed from the streets.
Strategy and Plan
The PR team, led by independent consultant Charles Wright, created a campaign that revolved around the central message of 'no room for smack and crack in Brixton'.
A website was created, police and council spokesmen appointed, and regular meetings with local newspapers arranged to explain the campaign and provide updates.
Bulletins and information leaflets featuring the new CrackOut branding were distributed to all houses in Lambeth, posters were put up around the borough publicising the campaign, a freephone number to report crime and an advice line were set up, and contracts to remove environmental eyesores, such as burnt-out cars, were arranged.
The hearts and minds offensive also saw officers visit each of Brixton's 150 businesses, from the multiples to the one-man stallholders.
Wright explains: 'There was an element of fear among businessmen. A lot of the street dealing was done right outside their premises, and they were worried about going to the police.
'Also, when officers started arresting crack dealers, they would often need six or seven of them to prevent the dealer from swallowing the drugs - so it could look bad if people didn't understand.'
Officers handed out CrackOut-branded posters, stickers, ash trays, match boxes and paper bags, as well as help numbers, to businesses.
'I'd say 99 per cent of business people supported us, especially when they saw people were being arrested, prosecuted and removed from the street,' says Wright.
Measurement and Evaluation
The main target of the PR campaign was the local press - the South London Press, Streatham Guardian and Lambeth Local. The organisers also received coverage in the Evening Standard and the Daily Mirror, which centered on the problems of crack dealers swallowing the evidence.
BBC London television and radio reported the campaign, as did LBC, Carlton news and Channel 4 News.
Wright comments: 'It was good to get the broadcast coverage and pieces in the Standard and Mirror, but our main aim was to get regular coverage in the local press and inform them how the campaign was progressing.
'Monthly figures helped with that, but also the availability of a councillor and senior officer. We knew a lot of the local population read some or all of these papers, so it was important to keep them informed.'
Polling firm MORI carried out an awareness survey at the start and the end of the eight-month campaign. 'In September, MORI's survey showed a 12 per cent awareness among the local population of what we were doing.
By March, the end of the campaign, this was 30 per cent,' Wright says.
'In campaign terms, that's pretty good growth in awareness.'
Superintendent Jerry Savill, who co-ordinated the police operation, said he was happy with the campaign and the message it sent to dealers and local residents. 'It was a battle for hearts and minds - and I think, in Brixton, we have turned the corner and won people over.
'That's not to say the battle is won, but I think local people are more prepared to help us fight crack and heroin dealing where they live.'
Streatham Guardian reporter Yvonne Gordon believes the PR campaign altered perceptions. 'There's no doubt people in Brixton had positive feelings from the campaign,' she says. 'People like to know about crack houses being closed down, environmental improvements and the police being seen to act.'
South London Press reporter Richard Evans agrees: 'The actual policing was the most significant factor, but the PR was good. The police and council were very accessible and ready to speak to the press.
'The campaign organisers would also come up with ideas for stories, most of which we used. They wanted to keep it in the paper, and our readers tell us it's an important issue - so it worked for both of us.'
To date, more than 200 street dealers have been arrested and 41 crack houses closed for good, with action underway against another 11. Across the borough, robberies are down almost 50 per cent since January 2002, and burglaries are down 25 per cent.