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How we got a contentious project approved

What was the job?

In 2017 we were hired to create the branding and website, and manage the media and marketing for a proposed new secondary school in a major English city The branding work was top class – our creative team are good like that – but a lot of agencies out there do very fine design work. What we did was, we believe, something that other agencies could not have done as effectively.

Setting the scene

The school plans had been attracting a lot of negative publicity, in part caused by a delay related to central government funding, but largely because of a noisy and organised campaign run by people living around the site of the proposed school. Negative stories were running in the local paper, letters were appearing opposed to the school, and social media was full of people rubbishing the plan, circulating misinformation and conspiracy theories and proposing what were claimed to be “common sense” alternatives that were actually hugely impractical for varying reasons.

Arguments against the school included:

  • There not being any need for school places in the city
  • There not being any need for places in this particular part of the city
  • Worsening of traffic in the area and the threat to cyclists caused by the entrance to the school having to cross a cycle path
  • Flooding risk
  • Damage to the green belt
  • The availability of allegedly much more suitable sites
  • The plan being an attempt to allow the multi-academy trust (MAT) behind the planned school to take more able students at a nearby school that it ran by dumping less capable students in the new school
  • The plan being exactly the opposite – using the nearby school as a dumping ground and selecting brighter students for the new school.

All forms of media were dominated by voices opposed to this school. Our goal was to give the new school a voice and to find and galvanise the silent majority who would be supportive of this plan.

What did we do?

We achieved more positive coverage in the traditional media by building good relationships with journalists to make sure that potentially negative stories were flagged up to us beforehand and that we had the chance to provide forensic, hard-hitting and grown-up responses. We also turned around these negative stories by using our experience of what is and isn’t newsworthy to provide more positive angles to stories. We secured a monthly column in the local paper at no cost and we wrote it on behalf of the chief executive of the MAT (we charged for this bit!).

Importantly, we kept the paper aware of major developments off the record which allowed them to plan ahead and us to get the resources in place (pictures, people, council reports and advice, statistics etc) to support positive stories. We worked together in a mutually beneficial way. This off-the-record approach is key when developing relationships with journalists. If this is a red line for you, then you should perhaps consider going with another agency. Obviously if there is a legal, commercial or ethical reason why information should not be shared, then that will always be respected. But if you don’t want to share because that is simply not the way you have operated in the past and you are uncomfortable with it, then other agencies are available.

We do it this way because it is our experience that local and regional newspapers and broadcast media always respect information given off the record, although you cannot rely on this with the national media as competition for stories is more intense and the journalists are more personally ambitious.

Competence is, however, less than universal in the local media. Journalists in the local press don’t always get stuff right, but this is rarely down to a lack of integrity – it is more likely a lack of experience, and this is where close relationships and a sense for how stories are put together are important, because you can spot when damaging mistakes are likely to be made and you can fix them. You can, if you like, ‘hold the hand’ of the reporter through the process.

What was the result?

Our approach with the media led to much more positive coverage for the school. Indeed, it led to reporters being accosted at meetings where opponents of the school complained of pro-school bias, and it led to wild accusations on social media of corruption and bribery of the press.

What else did you do?

Clearly, the way that stories were being presented in the media had changed drastically – but the opposition to the school still dominated social media – which was when our strategy in this area started to take effect. We believed there was a silent majority out there who wanted the school to be built. We had to find these people, organise them and encourage them to challenge the opponents on social media.

This is an absolutely vital part of the modern planning process. The conspiracy theories and misinformation that you see in these forums have a way of getting into the council chamber at planning meetings and infecting decision making. There will always be a councillor or councillors keen to oppose an application. They might be grandstanding to their constituents, they might have an ideological bias against development – there are any number of reasons why a councillor will be looking for something to attach their opposition to. And you can be sure that social media is where such things will be emerging and festering.

What you have to do is to debunk and dismantle these things. Relentlessly. You cannot do it yourself but you have to work with motivated supporters of your scheme to do this. You have to arm them with facts and information to counter arguments that might damage your plans.

With the planned new school there were many battles we had to fight. Opponents repeatedly claimed that secondary school places was not an issue in the area around the school, so we provided the official figures that showed it was. Opponents said that another site nearby was more suitable. We provided the official reports that showed it could not be built on because of flood risk and national planning guidelines.

Opponents said the birth rate in the city was falling and that the need for school places was going to fall. We provided the population projections that countered this. Opponents said that secondary schools in the city could simply expand to take extra numbers instead of the new school being built. We provided an explanation of why this could not be achieved or funded.

It was not at any stage about lying or smearing people – that was being done by the opponents of the school – it was about simply telling the truth over and over again to shut down the conspiracy theories and misinformation.

So, that’s all you did?

No. Having identified supporters of the scheme and established a relationship with them, we set up, wrote and ran a website to act as a focal point, promoted a change.org petition in favour of the school on social media and the traditional press (it ended up with more than 1,000 signatures compared with one of 300 against the school), created banners and posters with a homemade feel for supporters, advised them on staging demonstrations and liaised with the media to get publicity for these, and instructed them on how best to lobby councillors and their MP.

At all times we were on the lookout for potential threats to the plan. When a prominent national transport and cycling figure came to give a speech in the city we identified the potential for opponents to gain ‘celebrity’ backing for their cause. The national figure was duly ambushed with misinformation and gave an inflammatory quote. Because we were in the room we were able to speak to the individual afterwards, send him the full facts and secure a retraction to what would have been a damaging public statement.

A run-of-the-mill agency would likely have missed this threat. We didn’t. We spotted it and we were quite prepared to attend an evening meeting and spend some time following up to get the retraction we wanted. It is an example of how we go above and beyond writing statements and producing nice brochures to get the right result.

The outcome…

The city school was eventually passed at the second attempt. The opportunity to get it through at the first hurdle was missed, in part, because of a reluctance on the part of some of the other parties in the process to allow us to be fully responsible for presenting the case at the planning meeting. A complacent presentation ensued – key misinformation that we anticipated the opponents would use went unchallenged and no emotional case was made for the school.

We had a greater role the second time around in terms of who spoke and what they said and the result was 7-0 in favour of the scheme. At the second meeting we were able to tell councillors that the school was oversubscribed a month before the deadline, even with uncertainty over planning and before the school’s open evening had been held. To secure these applications we had run a social media campaign in the city encouraging people to fill in their applications early.

Would the scheme have been passed without our input? It is hard to say. We are convinced it would have gone to a planning inquiry and would have been delayed for a year, leading to several dozen city children being bussed to schools in surrounding towns. What is certain is that our campaign turned a negative narrative into a positive one in the traditional media, and it allowed the silent majority of supporters to challenge the smaller number of initially vocal opponents (let’s call them Nimbys) on social media. We got the job done. And we did it through experience and diligence.

If you just want a nice website, then there are plenty of people out there who just do that. If you just want someone to issue a press statement from time to time or put news out on social media, then there are also people who just do that. But if you want someone with insight and instincts whose focus is on getting the right outcome by influencing the opinions of those who matter and across all forms of media, then we will deliver.

More advice from our team

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