EU Referendum Campaign PR
In late 2015, we were invited to handle campaign PR for the EU Referendum across the East of England, covering six counties. It was a challenge we couldn’t refuse…
Aware of our ability to deliver superior PR, business leaders in the region had recommended us to Vote Leave HQ in Westminster – the high-calibre team responsible for the campaign’s media strategy.
After discussing the opportunity amongst the team, who all had differing political views and opinions, we accepted the invitation, knowing we had the expertise and professional connections to deliver a fast-paced, complex project.
It was a chance to be part of a campaign that attracted worldwide interest, as well as giving us a close insight into the referendum and how the rules and mechanics of political campaigning work in practice. It also provided a unique opportunity to put our skills to the test and work alongside senior PR campaigners and lobbyists, including those with top-level USA presidential campaign experience.
Our goal was to engage with people across the region, encouraging them to go to the polls on Thursday 23 June 2016. We implemented the campaign PR with the same energy we apply to all our jobs, but since this project stood in the world’s media spotlight, it brought a heightened level of interest and scrutiny.
Delivering the brief
Our brief was to implement PR based on the themes, news angles and messaging determined by the client. On a local level, we were able to localise some content, making it more relevant to our media contacts. Our main role was to capture the media’s attention and loyalty, by giving them content and stories, as well as sourcing and putting forward suitable spokespeople for interview and answering journalists’ questions. After just a few weeks, we had quickly become the ‘go-to’ source for campaign news in the East of England.
Responsive and reliable
Over an intense six months of campaign PR, we maintained a calm attitude, allowing us to make strategic decisions even when the national campaign suddenly changed tack, responding to the changing news agenda and politicians’ activity.
We responded swiftly to requests from the client and media to maintain the campaign’s momentum in the eastern counties. Often working to urgent deadlines, we also worked with the regional media and campaign spokespeople to arrange interviews, TV and radio debates, and provide reaction to breaking news.
Real life stories
One of our aims was to engage with a very broad audience. To find stories that resonated with people, we identified interviewees who could share real-life experience, such as local farmers, SME owners, the fishing community and Suffolk’s Police & Crime Commissioner.
The project opened up opportunity after opportunity to hone our PR tactics and skills. Our highlights included:
- Handling the complex, and often last-minute, logistics for politicians’ visits, the Battlebus tour and media interviews.
- Managing the media during the Battlebus tour and VIP visits.
- Briefing business owners with no prior media experience, resulting in excellent interviews and ‘TV gold’, as some media stated.
- Working with local specialists to comment on issues such as science, agricultural subsidies and EU tenders.
- Developing trusted relationships with political broadcasters and journalists, including some national press.
- Helping with the organisation and attending to co-ordinate the media for rally events with senior ‘level one’ politicians and business people such as Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith.
- Organising a meeting between Tim Passmore, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in Ipswich, followed by media interviews.
- Requesting and arranging numerous PR opportunities including Chris Grayling’s visit to Ipswich waterfront and Boris Johnson’s TV interviews.
Importance of impartiality
Although this was a political campaign, as an agency we remained impartial throughout the project. Vote Leave may have been the client, but this didn’t necessarily reflect our employees’ own choices. As with all our clients, we were hired to do a great job, yet there was never any pressure for our team to vote one way or the other.
Other clients represented a range of opinions; one was pro-Remain and asked us to secure press coverage around the country for their business, which we did successfully. We also brokered an extensive feature in a special edition of Business East Monthly, which represented both sides of the referendum debate.
Also, as a sponsor of the Ipswich Suffolk Business Club, we organised an impartial EU debate with the Suffolk Institute of Directors and the East of England branch of the ICAEW. Taking place at DanceEast in Ipswich, the debate was chaired by Look East presenter, Susie Fowler-Watt, with panel members including Remain supporters Jonathan Knight – a Cambridge business owner, and Lord Deben. Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon, and Iain Duncan Smith spoke for Leave. We arranged media interviews for all spokespeople with the regional broadcast and print media.
Between January and June 2016, we generated constant coverage across the East of England – from very local papers to TV coverage across seven counties.
When the project ended on Wednesday 22 June, we received exceptional feedback from the campaign senior team, senior business spokespeople and the media.
We are proud to have been part of a significant moment in political and media history, which saw a voter turnout in the East of England of 75.7%.
Although we achieved our goal of mobilising voters, we also know that our success can only benefit other clients. They know that if we can deliver this quality of PR under the pressure of a campaign in the world’s media spotlight.
On a daily basis we made every effort to strengthen our press relationships by providing journalists with compelling, informative content. In fact, the political correspondent at BBC East complimented us on our work in terms of the stories and opportunities we provided, as well as our ability to react quickly to enquiries. At the end of the campaign, Andrew Sinclair wrote:
“Whatever happens next I just wanted to say thank you for all your help over the last couple of months. You were by far the better side in terms of PR: clear, organised and informative. Your guidance over what was being planned was also very useful from our point of view.”
The campaign’s Network Manager, James Starkie, who managed all regional PR agencies, said: