How do you persuade 30,000 local residents to support airport expansion?

Or more precisely, how do you persuade them to support an airport that is mainly home to private jets – the taxis of the super rich and the symbols of envy at best, hatred at worst?

Unsurprisingly for a research firm, we would say…. research!

Before Forefront was a mere twinkle in my eye, I worked on a campaign for London Biggin Hill Airport with my long-time collaborator Wyn Evans at Forty Shillings.

Biggin is perhaps best known for its role as one of primary bases from which many of the Spitfires and Hurricanes flew in the Battle of Britain. After it was sold off by the RAF, it became a small private airport, serving general and business aviation.

As a legacy of that sell-off, its landlord is Bromley Council. For years, every time the airport wanted to make even minor changes, the Council would be inundated by residents opposed to the airport.

For example, an application to extend opening hours for two weeks during the London Olympics attracted 6,000 objections.

So when the airport needed to extend their opening hours permanently, they needed a campaign that could overcome significant opposition.

“Hold that print run!”

When Forty Shillings and I were appointed, the first thing I advised was to commission a detailed programme of research in order to find out how local residents might respond to our proposal and who – if anyone – might support it (and crucially, why).

The client was initially sceptical. They saw research through the traditional prism of demonstrating ‘proof’ of support, rather than to inform the message and shape of the campaign.

But they were open-minded enough to take plunge. And the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The future of their business was at stake, and the mood music from the Council wasn’t positive.

We managed to get something into the field and organise groups just before their first major piece of literature was to be printed and delivered to over 100,000 households.

Thank God we did.

In the groups we tested the proposed messaging, which was an economic argument. It was all about how important the airport was to the local economy, how much its growth would contribute to local GDP and how many jobs it would create.

That is what the airport had been saying in their communications for many years. And it was powerful stuff.

But there was a problem. The majority of residents didn’t hear that. They heard something very different.

They heard: “We want to be the next Stansted”

We probed this perception and this is what we found. There was a deep underlying fear that the airport was moving slowing but surely towards an unstated ambition to become a large commercial airport, eventually turning into a Luton or Stansted.

The fundamental problem was that there was no trust, so every proposal, no matter how minor, was immediately viewed with suspicion. The sentiment was ‘if we agree to this, they will come back and ask for more until we have Easyjet on our doorstep.’

Saying no to every proposal was entirely logical. It was the only control they felt they had. And they were terrified of giving it up.

I’ve never been on the phone to the client so quickly; “stop the press!”

I am convinced to this day that if we had allowed the original message to go out, we would have lost before the campaign had barely begun.

As awkward as it was to tell the client that the lovely looking leaflets we had designed up had to be binned, it was far more important that we had got to the bottom of what the problem really was.

Using research to understand the reality of what you’re dealing with is the only was to design a campaign strategy that stands a chance of working.

So, what did we need to do?

We tested the actual measures they were proposing and asked respondents (in both the quant and qual) whether they thought they were reasonable.

And it turned out that most people thought they were. The problem wasn’t the proposal. It was the organisation proposing it and the lingering suspicion of what was ‘behind’ the proposals.

So before even thinking about launching a campaign, we needed to embark on a ‘pre-campaign’ that sought to re-build trust in the airport and to be open about how their business really worked.

It needed to acknowledge their past mistakes and explain in plain language not just what the airport did but, crucially, what it did not and would never do. It required an exercise in honest re-assurance, so we could have a discussion about the proposals within a new context.

The first thing we did was write to every resident in the Borough with this new message. And it was a personal message from the Managing Director, where he made clear his responsibility for the promises being made.

This is what we sent out:

Change = the status quo

Once we had re-set the relationship, we could then launch a campaign on something like equal terms. And our first job was to change the context of the debate.

We sought to re-frame the opening hours proposal as a means by which residents could take control of the future and limit the size of airport – a credible claim because the business strategy was to make a success of the private jet market instead of trying to attract regional airlines.

Our message become, in essence, that a vote for change was a vote to keep the airport small and insure against the risk of it becoming Easyjet central in the future.

We did this by focusing on the facts in our communications material, making it very clear what would change, what would stay the same and how the community would benefit.

This is an example of a piece of material that tested particularly well:

This was placed as advert in the local newspaper, as well as delivered through doors and online.

Most communications professionals would wince at the amount of text here and usually, I would agree.

But in this case, we had done our homework and we knew what we needed to communicate in order to get people on our side.

It was also important to explain in clear terms what the benefit of having an airport on your doorstep actually was. Too often the debate around airports is focused on the negative aspects, hardly ever on the positive.

Biggin has a powerful story to tell. They’re not just a runway. They house engineering and aircraft service companies that provide job and training opportunities for local young people

So we designed strong visual material to bring this story to life and frame our ask in emotional and relatable terms. This is the film we made to tell that story:

So, what was the result?

The Council ran the consultation like a mini-referendum, where residents could ‘vote’ on their website. Taking their lead, we campaigned as if it were an election, taking our message door to door and encouraging our supporters to vote yes. Our opponents did the same. To seasoned electioneers like me, it was great fun.

In the end, our campaign generated over 30,000 yes votes. No, that’s not a typo. It was one of the largest consultation exercises in recent local government history. And such an overwhelming response gave the council the political confidence to approve the proposal.

If we hadn’t have done the research and stuck to the insights that were generated, we surely would have failed in the campaign.

Because we had uncovered what was really driving opinion – good and bad – we could design a message and strategy that had the best chance of mobilising support.

Yet another example of why campaigns who hope to mobilise their supporters must follow the Golden Rule:

Do the research.

Test the message.

Stick to it.

What do you think about this campaign? Have you had issues like this in past? Do you have issues like this coming up?

Drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you:

Alex Crowley
About the author
Alex Crowley
Former Political Director to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, part of the teams that won two London Mayoral elections and the Conservative leadership. Over 10 years experience advising private and corporate clients on effective campaign strategies.