Five lessons learned – How effective PR got our client’s issue onto the PM’s priority list

I nearly fell off my chair when I heard Liz Truss say the words ‘heat networks’ and ‘equivalent support’ in her first speech as PM.

For many, this was a minor point in a wider plan to deal with spiralling energy bills that were driving up the cost of living. But for the team at Hough Bellis, it was the culmination of ten months of sustained campaigning in the media.

It meant that around 500,000 homes in the UK living on heat networks – who were set to be amongst the worst affected by the energy crisis – would get the financial support they needed.

What happened?

As people were enjoying the calm of the week between Christmas and New Year, the government quietly announced its intention to regulate the heat network market. This was huge news for our client Heat Trust, the consumer champion for the sector.

Without regulation, consumers currently have had no protection against poor customer service and inaccurate billing (unless their energy provider signs up to the Heat Trust scheme).

This also means households are not protected by Ofgem’s price cap, meaning their bills have been spiralling uncontrollably as the wholesale cost of gas soared.

The campaign

Since the start of the year, we’ve been supporting Heat Trust with its campaign to:

  • Make sure that these people – who were facing bills of up to £1,000 per month during the winter – were not forgotten by government support packages,
  • Speed up the move to regulation, giving households access to consumer protection in line with other parts of the energy market.

Top tips

Being at the start of my communications career, working on a campaign to get these two outcomes on the agenda has been a steep learning curve. Here are five valuable insights I’ve learnt from working on this campaign:

  1. Map out your timeline

For us, this meant knowing when Ofgem was announcing and bringing in new price caps, when the Queen’s Speech would be and the dates the Energy Bill was being debated in Parliament, and working around that.

By hooking our campaign to key dates we were able to get Watchdog’s Matt Allwright speaking about the problem on The One Show and secure coverage across the national press.

  1. Allow for unexpected opportunities in the changing news agenda

It’s vital to move quickly to react to what is happening in the news, either because the news cycle has come back around or because you now know when something will be announced.

Ofgem don’t always publicly share when they will announce the upcoming price cap, and it could be just a week before. We used our knowledge of the sector to make an educated guess and were prepared with our response.

Similarly, when we realised that the National Housing Federation (NHF) had sent a similar release, we followed up with journalists and the NHF. We achieved coverage on the BBC’s homepage and are now coordinating with the housing body.

  1. Understand your audiences and tailor your message

It pays to tease out what the industry needs to know versus what impacts consumers.

Dealing with a complex and yet too little-known issue has meant that I have had to really break down the issue for journalists and their readers. Even energy journalists have admitted to me they are not that familiar with how heat networks work..!

But doing this has meant we have secured coverage in media as diverse as Energy Live News, The Mirror and You and Yours on BBC Radio 4.

  1. Quick turnarounds

More often than not, press journalists and broadcast producers have a tight deadline for statements or an interview. Although this is unpredictable, it helps to know your client’s or tenant case study’s availability and helping them prepare with notes or possible questions.

  1. Nurture your key contacts

I kept our important journalist contacts updated so they knew who they can come to for reliable help with their stories.

It meant that when a national journalist was unsure of what Liz Truss’s support package would mean for families on communal and district heat networks in her first ever announcement as PM, guess whose inbox she dropped into?

Planning ahead – combined with HB Account Director Ben’s first-hand knowledge of Parliament’s inner workings – has been invaluable and resulted in us getting the support these tenants vitally need.

But with regulation still a way off (if not on the rocks after Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent revelation), there’s more to be done. Who else is going to fight the corner of heat network tenants if not us?

To speak to Hough Bellis about a campaign you’re passionate about, contact us.

By Catriona Gilmore