VOLUNTARY SECTOR CAMPAIGN: MPs show allegiance for teen runaways

Since establishing Britain's first refuge for young runaways 25 years ago, The Children's Society has worked to help the estimated 100,000 children under 16 who run away each year.

MPs signed the gaint trainer
MPs signed the gaint trainer

Campaign: Runaways Support - The Final Push
Client: The Children's Society
PR Team: In house
Timescale: January 2007 to January 2008
Budget: Approx £7,500

While many runaways soon go home, others are left penniless on the street, begging for a bed and facing bleak options. These range from the hospitality of pimps and pushers to a night in a police cell and a return to the neglect or abuse that first made them flee.

Eighteen months ago, the Government commissioned The Children's Society to head up a national consultation, researching the services provided for runaways by local authorities, the police and the voluntary sector.

Seizing this opportunity, in January 2007 the charity intensified its parliamentary and media campaigning.

To raise awareness of young runaways and the dangers they face. To engage the 150 local authorities in England and make providing support for runaways a priority. To establish a coalition of voluntary bodies and confirm government commitment to providing a network of support and refuges.

Strategy and plan
To sustain interest over a 12-month period, campaigning focused on key peaks in parliamentary activity. These included the formation last January of an All Party Parliamentary Group for Missing and Runaway Children, chaired by Helen Southworth MP.

In October, the charity attracted attention by persuading 100 MPs to sign a giant running shoe. This marked two days of parliamentary hearings and the formal submission to the Department for Children, Schools and Families of the charity's consultation report Stepping Up.

A further milestone was reached in May, with the foundation of the English Coalition for Runaway Children, comprising 30 voluntary bodies including The Children's Society, NSPCC and Missing People.

The PR team briefed the media to create a buzz around each of these events to influence key stakeholders in parliament and encourage pressure at a regional level. They targeted local media with regional statistics, while the team worked closely with Southworth's office to gain tailored quotes from MPs. Other tools included news releases, case studies, interviews with runaways and other spokespeople, plus photocalls for print and TV.

Measurement and evaluation
The campaign repeatedly scored coverage from BBC Radio 4, BBC News 24 and BBC Breakfast.

This January, The Guardian ran a leader 'In praise of ... The Children's Society'. This was backed by articles in The Times and The Sun and coverage from religious, trade and youth media, including The Church Times and BBC Newsround.

On 10 January, children's secretary Ed Balls and minister for young people Kevin Brennan unveiled a cross-Government Working Group aimed at keeping young runaways safe.

The charity is maintaining pressure as the working group develops an action plan and reviews emergency accommodation provision this summer.

Jonathan Lomax, director, Mandate Communications

One of the most noticeable developments in public affairs over the past decade is the increasing amount of campaigning being undertaken by charities. While some charities have always pushed for societal or legislative change, the number involved in direct advocacy work has mushroomed.

Jonathan LomaxWhat is so impressive about the long-running campaign on runaways by The Children's Society is that it managed to take a relatively neglected issue, push it up the political agenda using effective profile-raising techniques and, eventually, force the Government to act.

As public affairs and PR practitioners know only too well, it is very difficult to take an issue from scratch and get any traction at all, let alone achieve real policy change.

I think the success of this campaign was built on two great strengths that should be used by all groups seeking change. Firstly, the campaign was rooted in solid evidence gathered from the children themselves, as well as in experience from practical programmes.

Campaigns often falter because they are built on a weak base that crumbles away when tested by the media or politicians. In this campaign The Children's Society successfully married its ongoing practical care with a desire to reduce the problem in the future through advocacy work.

Secondly, the charity has shown admirable staying power in running this campaign for more than eight years. Public affairs successes take time, particularly if you are the group initially raising the issue.

All too many organisations go for a quick PR hit, or a stand-alone event in Parliament, but when the dust settles, little will have improved. To force change you need to be in it for the long haul - even when people may be eager for the organisation to 'move on'.

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