Marcus Rashford, Manchester United and England footballer, has been deservedly hailed for helping more than a million UK children get access to free meal vouchers during the summer holidays this year.
His campaign to push the UK Government into reversing its decision to stop the voucher scheme outside school term time is more than a “political masterclass” as the Guardian says or a PR masterclass; it’s when something goes beyond politics or communications and enters a new realm: a moral mission.
Still, it’s humbling to receive lessons in public relations from a modest, 22-year-old better known for his goal-scoring prowess. As a deeply casual follower of football, I knew about Rashford only vaguely; you can bet I know who he is now.
So, what can we learn in pure public relations terms from his contribution to the turnaround in Government policy towards free meal vouchers? As a case study, it ticks virtually every box and has several elements that are difficult, if not impossible, for others to emulate – not least his footballing fame. But if every business or organisation with an objective to achieve took some of these PR lessons to heart, their campaign would stand a better chance of success:
1.Having an objective with meaning
What Rashford wanted to achieve had a powerful, moral imperative behind it. Getting the Government to u-turn on its voucher scheme for the families and children most in need was morally justified, regardless of the cost to the public purse.
2. Being authentic
Speaking honestly and candidly from personal experience as a child growing up in poverty, and who benefited from free school meals, has given Rashford an authentic voice for this cause, regardless of his current status as a successful, Premier League sportsman.
His existing involvement with food charity, FareShare, also bolsters his authenticity and avoids any accusation of being co-opted just because of his high profile.
3. A simple message
That supporting children and families experiencing food poverty is simply the right thing to do at a time of extreme economic and social pressure is a message of simplicity and clarity. Try arguing with it! It’s also easy for others to get behind and create a swell of feeling and opinion.
4. Using tried and tested PR tools
In our era of the most elaborate communications tools available, who would imagine the humble letter could be the bedrock of a successful change campaign? However, Rashford’s open letter to MPs was a great example of the power of well-chosen and persuasive language, for example: “This is England in 2020 and this is an issue that needs urgent assistance. Please, while the eyes of the nation are on you, make the U-turn and make protecting the lives of some of our most vulnerable a top priority.”
While that alone didn’t change the Government’s stance, the follow-up column in the Times newspaper, the one-to-one interview on the BBC and the Twitter activity including the #maketheuturn hashtag are not what you might call “rocket science”; just solid PR and media relations activity. And a little bit of tenacity when the first response to your request is “no” goes a long way.
5. Humility in victory
After the Government reversed its decision, a political opponent would probably have sought to make political capital from it. However, Rashford tweeted “I don’t even know what to say…” and – in a follow-up interview with the BBC – spoke calmly about his conversation with the Prime Minister and how he thanked him for his decision. No need to humiliate the opposition when you’ve won the battle and such humility only reinforces the moral integrity of the argument and the person who delivered it.
I can’t think of another sportsperson, let alone footballer, who in recent times has used his position so effectively to help others and shift the position of a Government. And it show what the PR skills and techniques demonstrated – in the right hands and with the right components – can achieve.