The government has revealed it is planning a major publicity campaign to encourage people to vote in next year’s ‘metro-mayor’ elections in a bid to avoid a repeat of the dire turnout that blighted the 2012 police and crime commissioner polls.
Celebrity endorsements of the creation of elected mayors, as well as billboard, bus-stop and radio adverts, are among the measures planned by the Department for Communities & Local Government in advance of the polls in May 2017.
Details of the campaign – for which funding has not yet been agreed – were given by Pinky Badhan, the DCLG’s head of campaigns and marketing, at LGcommunications’ public sector communications academy in Liverpool on Tuesday.
Ms Badhan said: “We are looking at learning from the PCC elections that had the very low turnout of 15%. We are nervous at DCLG and don’t want [to repeat] that.
“I’m hoping that [turnout is] not that bad and that the mayor is seen as a ‘sexy position’ they might want to vote for.”
She pointed out that the parts of the north regularly saw some of the lowest turnouts in local elections. This has led to anxiety about turnout in Liverpool and Greater Manchester.
Ms Badhan said the DCLG was using Ipsos Mori research, which showed three-quarters of the population knew little about devolution but half supported the decentralisation of political power, as the “baseline” of current interest in devolution to assess the success of its campaign.
There could be up to 10 metro-mayor polls on 4 May 2017. The planned campaign will focus on maximising awareness of the contests among adults eligible to vote in the areas, with groups less likely to vote such as students, renters and people who have recently moved to an area targeted.
Addressing the audience of communications professionals, Ms Badhan said: “Our strategy is to work with combined authorities to ensure you guys can tell us that we are hitting our target audience. We want to engage with key local stakeholders and through grassroots channels.”
As an example, she urged local communications officers to let her department know which community radio stations had the biggest reach among hard-to-reach groups.
Ms Badhan also disclosed another unorthodox method planned to reach out to residents who were hard to reach through conventional campaigns. “We will stalk some celebrities who may be interested in getting across the message involved,” she said. A picture of Noel Gallagher, the Manchester-born Oasis rock star, was used in Ms Badhan’s presentation to illustrate the sort of celebrity who could be approached.
The session also heard from two of the communications figures most heavily involved in getting combined authorities’ messages across.
Jan Jennings, the communications lead of the West Midlands Combined Authority, spoke of the difficulty in devising comms strategies for the new bodies.
“There’s no roadmap or template, no one is best in class – we all make mistakes and have crises,” she said. “We are making it up as we go along, to some extent.”
She hinted of the difficulty in getting residents to understand how the combined authority would make a difference to their lives, with the “message being” about improving employment, skills, housing and transport, as well as public sector reform.
But she also conceded: “You need shovels on the ground and hi-vis photo opportunities.”
Bridget Aherne, who has recently moved on from her role as head of communications at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, said the leader and chief executive of its 10 member councils had each been given an issue portfolio and their council had provided communications for this issue.
However, “if you are a small communications team who has had years of budget cuts” the task of communicating to three million people had been difficult, she said.