Pulling together communications for a major by-election

The communications team play a key role in helping take election information and updates to the local, national and sometimes international public.

They often work in the eye of a media frenzy and have to put facilities and material together within a limited time period, as well as often working around the clock to ensure support to both the public service whose election it is, the local council running the election and the variety of communications channels.

Following the national and international interest in the Rochester and Strood Parliamentary by-election in November 2014, requests have come in for tips for providing communications facilities for the May general election. The Local Government Association (LGA) has been providing access to some of the learnings from the communications’ team in Medway and other councils.

The Rochester and Strood Parliamentary by-election in November 2014 had huge media interest with 150 international, national and local media organisations attending and Radio Kent broadcasting all night from the count. The Communications team’s offering started with a media pack including a locations video filmed on an iphone, which worked well enabling multiple broadcasters to film in advance and helping to free up time for the work of the count. At the election count, the team found that the strong imagery, large ‘Medway’ signposts, and continual use of the words ‘Rochester and Strood, Medway’, successfully helped to raise awareness of the location.

If you have other material which could be shared with communications practitioners, contact the LPS. Thanks to Medway Council for sharing this case study. Abha Thakor

 

ASWAshley Wilcox FCIPR (pictured), Head of Communications and Marketing at Medway Council, shares his team’s experience for those working in local public services:

The resignation of Conservative MP Mark Reckless and his move to UKIP sparked one of the UK’s most contested by-elections in recent times. Described as ‘probably the last by-election before the general election’ by the media, this put the by-election at the top of the news and political agenda.

Medway Council count venue with big boards with the name of 'Medway' around the roomThe constituency is part of Medway and the Council’s communications and marketing team picked up the challenge to use this as an opportunity to ‘Put Medway on the Map’. Almost immediately media calls came in asking who was standing, where could they film, where could they park, how could they get count accreditation, and dozens of other questions.

A decision was taken to ensure the Council gave the media the best experience possible to serve the election process. We created a guide to Rochester and Strood for journalists including key facts and a short video on film locations filmed on a press officers’ iphone. We invited broadcast media to the count venue early and worked with them on requirements. We built a camera stage, made sure they got a feed from the announcement microphone, ensured there were extra power sockets, boosted the wifi capabilities. Externally, we brought in football pitch floodlighting to make access for satellite trucks and the crews easier and safer as this was a dark and cold November night and sat trucks were positioned down a slope!

“We had around 150 media organisations attend – international, national and local – broadcasters, print and online media, bloggers”

Calls kept coming and the list grew and grew – we quickly learned some journalists thought this one call meant they would get a place at the actual count. A week before we had spent a few hours explaining to some why they were not going to be allowed in to the count due to venue capacity and the need to maintain space for the working of the actual election process itself. Our accreditation list was a scientific process – it was important to segment the attenders by their roles and synchronise this with the ebb and flow of the election count process. For example, the 40 people from the BBC were obviously not all going to be there at the same time nor in the sat trucks. By doing this we could maximise the number in the hall at any one time.

We produced a media pack (link below) for the count which had more facts, how it would work and to deal with the frequently asked questions – everyone kept calling for a likely announcement time! We used it to get a few guidelines across and to try and avoid any issues for both the election process and the different communications channels.

The election count room at MEdway showing lare banners with the brand name 'Medway'In addition to making sure the media knew we were there to help (and this definitely helped them work with us more productively), the Council looked at branding. A timelapse video (link below) showed the count venue build and the election count itself, the branding opportunities taken – large banners, big stage – plus the name Medway everywhere (pictured). We set up branded filming areas including the reception areas as the point of arrival of candidates was a major gathering location for the media. We also kept talking to the media about Rochester and Strood Medway.

We had around 150 media organisations attend – international, national and local – broadcasters, print and online media, bloggers. Radio Kent broadcast all night from the count. The media obviously thinks in terms of county but it was important that we showed this was taking place in Medway. It worked as both Sky and the BBC presenters said Medway and the name and images from the branding appeared in every national. Coverage was international too – all good for ‘Putting Medway on the Map’.

Lessons learnt:

  • get the big media in early, work with them and then they will work with you better
  • give them locations they can undertake filming during the run up and afterwards
  • get a number for media agreed by your council’s Returning Officer at the start – it is harder to de-invite
  • be clear applying for accreditation does not mean attendance inside the election count venue (and how to apply for that). Help the media understand what it does provide – this can help you in information flow too
  • brand as much as you can – and think impact. What will work on TV? It does not have to be the council logo everywhere – strong images, key words linked to your area can work well and sometimes better
  • arrange for the council to be in charge of security if you have a ‘big name’ count and expect a media scrum. It was much easier for us to manage candidate arrival with security working with us and helping the media
  • get the staff rota right – it was three days of set up and a very long night and day, with two days of counts this time so many more days.

What happens now?

For Medway the media interest has not dropped. All major broadcasters will be with us on 7 May 2015 with plans to go national. This, they have told us, is because of the work we did in November 2014 to assist them – as well as the ongoing story of course. Building those relationships has paid off for us.

Keeping people interested is a major part of our plan. Medway became the first council to use the new Twitter live streaming app Periscope at the end of March 2015 (less than 24 hours after its launch) to live stream a sports centre opening. We will be using this on election night to keep our Twitter followers engaged.

Professional development material

The three resources below have been provided to the CIPR LPS as CPD items to share with communications practitioners – they remain the copyright (2015) of Medway Council.

Medway Council’s Timelapse video

Medway Council election pack for journalists 11/2014

Medway Council media pack for count 11/2014

Other reading and resources

More on the use of Periscope on the LPS blog next week

‘PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services’ – this book has a chapter, ‘Communications Teams’, which examines council elections.

Communications fundamental to local public services

Purdah explained by LGA’s David Holdstock

If you have resources or recommended reading, the LPS can add here, let us know.

 

Article writers: Abha Thakor and Ashley Wilcox

 



Categories: CPD, Local Public Services news, PR insights

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