Duncan Hopwood

Lessons from HS1/2

November 9, 2016

Selling the vision of major projects: Do it well or be demonised.

At the relaunch of the property and construction group within PRCA (the Public Relations and Communications Association), we’re hearing from the horse’s mouth about what went right with the public consultation and engagement on HS1 and what went oh so badly wrong on HS2.

Quick disclaimer: I’ve used the title of the presentation for this piece but I wouldn’t describe public consultation and stakeholder engagement as ‘selling’ exercises. That suggests one-way traffic and propaganda for commercial gain. On the contrary, done well, these kinds of projects should be about involvement and engagement, especially since we now have an armoury of digital communications channels that enable this on a scale never before possible.

Our speaker is Ben Ruse, former media director for HS1 who went on to be lead spokesperson for HS2 until 2013.

His opening shot is that grand projects automatically attract public disapproval. In the Olympic Park area, London 2012 had a 50 per cent approval rating before the games which soared to 75 per4 cent around Super Saturday only to slip back to pre-game levels. Nationwide – let alone in the areas affected – HS2 has been polling 35 per cent in favour at best.

Does it matter?

How much does that matter? Ben points out that the House of Commons typically returns enormous majorities in favour of big infrastructure projects such as HS2. Ultimately, government makes the decisions.

The challenge to win public support is on a very human level. Good communications cannot meet this test alone. The other ‘c’ word, compensation, can, or could if the UK way of delivering it wasn’t so fiendishly complex and built on a desire by authorities to limit the amount paid out to the minimum possible. By contrast, France gives three times more generously and, as Ben points out, has built two airports in the time it has taken the UK to make a decision to build one runway.

So money gets the job done but good PR helps. And the PR for HS1 was very good. The decision to redevelop St Pancras and build the high speed connection to the Chunnel delivered a generation of disruption for people living around the site.

Eyes on the prize

The project spent money buying local people double glazing to keep out the noise and tumble dryers so that their washing wasn’t coated in dust but PR delivered something bigger – letting people know what the ‘prize’ would be in regeneration. A lot of the campaign’s success was built on being visible locally. The team set up a Portakabin on site as a marketing suite. It worked at being visible in the local press, in classrooms (to enlist young ambassadors to persuade their parents of the benefits) and at local events.

Rather than those sterile foam board displays in village halls and council offices – we’ve all been there – take a stall at the village fete. Be in context and take advantage of the power of existing local events and groups to deliver an audience. The HS1 PR team were creative in other ways too. One standout example was a play they commissioned by a Radio 4 playwright that told the story of Sir John Betjeman’s struggle to save St Pancras from demolition.

Monstrous

So that’s what success looks like. HS2 by comparison has become the monster for all Camden’s ills. It seems a case of too little too late on the communications front, and the opposition to the scheme not just in London but all along the route – and politically – is mounting. Those who want to deliver big projects should realise at the outset that delays because of local opposition cost huge amounts of money.

I asked a question based on Hopwood PR’s experience working with the URC for Leicester some years ago. Here we found a clear generational gap between the Grumpy Old Men generation and a younger audience who were readier to believe and embrace the opportunities. We identified that one of the major obstacles to winning the hearts and minds of the over 40s was to convince them that the URC would deliver and it would be good. Like many cities, Leicester had been brutalised in the 1960s and its people promised wonderful new things by successive councils that never materialised, such as a monorail. Their scepticism was understandable. One of the ways we challenged this was to create two regeneration walking tours with illustrated leaflets enabling people to visit the sites, see the first buildings being delivered and get a feel for what else could be on the way. A shiny new shopping centre and Grade A offices near the rail station were duly delivered before 2008 brought things grindingly to a halt. Leicester still has 12 miles of undeveloped waterway, though there have been moves to revive the plans recently.

Bear in mind this was long enough ago that silver surfers were the exception rather than the norm so social media wasn’t a channel we could use with them, but Facebook – a burgeoning force at the time – was. Not only did the channel connect us to an enthusiastic younger audience it also allowed us to demonstrate to stakeholders and the older generation that we were engaging with young people. We did this simply by sending a news release and screen shot to the local newspaper.

The answer to my question then is to use a balance of online and conventional media but remember that audience profiles change over time so adapt your use of channels.

Be careful too. In one of his HS roles, Ben had taken the reasonable premise that the project should be given a human face and made the mistake of making publicly available a Twitter profile for himself. It resulted in the stream from hell. So beware open forums that a few vocal opponents can take over and occupy. Instead keep your online activity short lived. Connect it to an event or something tangible with a beginning and end. Keep it moving to avoid hosting a festering hard-core group.

Lessons in brief

• Engage, don’t sell
• Expect opposition for big projects
• Good communications can’t do it all
• Compensate early and generously
• Give practical help to communities
• Tell the big regeneration story well
• Go where your audience is
• Use a mix of online and offline channels
• Understand the generation gap
• Keep online activity short-lived