Commemorating during crisis: the RAF’s Battle of Britain 80 campaign

The Battle of Britain campaign recently won Gold in the Data-driven category at this year’s Public Service Communications Awards. Find out more about the awards on this news story.

An aged photograph of Royal Air Force crew working on aircraft in a large hanger.

This year, communicators took centre-stage in the Government’s response to coronavirus (COVID-19). The pandemic has brought to light the fundamental significance of communications during crises.

Eighty years ago, Government communicators had to adapt to another unprecedented information environment, from a wholly different threat in our skies: Nazi Germany’s attempt to take control of British airspace in the Battle of Britain.

The Battle of Britain is arguably the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) clearest contribution to UK security in its history. It also has clear links to the RAF’s primary role today: Protection of UK airspace and the defence of our nation. However, according to Ministry of Defence (MOD) commissioned YouGov polling carried out in June 2020, 45% of the UK public know little to nothing about the battle.

At the age of 102, the RAF is rightly proud of its legacy. And of its many achievements since World War One, the Battle of Britain is especially venerated. It is celebrated by the RAF Family every year. But our traditional celebrations no doubt largely miss the 45% who don’t already know about it.

In late 2019, we decided to do something different with Battle of Britain 80. Rather than retelling the same story, to the same supportive audience we reach every year, we’d use the campaign as an opportunity to innovate, trialling new forms of content, and new ways of communicating. In doing so, we sought to design a campaign that was insight-driven and audience-orientated.

Battle of Britain 80 was digital-by-design, an approach that increased effectiveness and saved money, especially as the campaign was delivered entirely in-house. Importantly, our digital focus made the campaign more resilient during the pandemic. As public events were cancelled across the nation, our digital campaign remained largely unaffected.

Most traditional Battle of Britain ceremonial events were curtailed due to COVID-19, although a national service at Westminster Abbey went ahead. Though this service was necessarily reduced in scope, its spirit and poignancy were maintained.

A flypast by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight over this service, including stunning GoPro footage from the cockpit as they passed over Central London, was seen by millions on RAF and BBC channels.

Innovation didn’t stop with campaign delivery. We also shifted the focus of the entire Battle of Britain story. In past years, we had celebrated the traditional story of the Battle; Churchill’s famous “Few”, Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes, and air battles over the White Cliffs of Dover. Appealing as it is, we determined early that this story wouldn’t appeal to new audiences.

Instead of the traditional, we focused on three themes that would prompt new engagement:

  1. Science and ingenuity.
  2. The wider national effort, including civilians, industry, union and gender messaging.
  3. International support for the UK during the Battle.

We selected several discrete, targeted audiences, who we thought might be interested in these themes. This included three segments of the UK population, identified by their attitude towards defence.

We also prioritised people in London and southeast England. Insight going back to the RAF’s centenary in 2018 showed that Londoners are less likely to identify with the Armed Forces​. This continued to be the case: June 2020 polling showed that 45% of people in London think that the Armed Forces isn’t for people like them, far higher than the national average of 36%​.

However, the Battle of Britain is synonymous with London and southeast England. The RAF’s 11 Group, which defended the southeast, was the busiest Group in the country. We saw Battle of Britain 80 as an opportunity to engage with this audience, raising awareness of the RAF’s role in the Battle, and its ongoing role securing UK skies today.

As with most RAF media campaigns, this was simultaneously delivered across external and internal communications. So, we also targeted the RAF ‘whole force’, including RAF Regulars and Reserves, civil servants, and contractors.

Across 2020 we posted nearly 200 social media posts as part of the Battle of Britain 80 campaign. Most of this content was published over three discrete high points in July, September, and October. All this content directed users to a Battle of Britain 80 page on the RAF website, which tells the story of the Battle, and its links to the present and the future, in a well-designed and engaging style.

Innovation, based on the latest digital trends, was at the heart of our digital content. In recent years, we have increased video reach and retention through animation. However, retention remains stubbornly low. As part of Battle of Britain 80, we published our first interactive animations, using native functionality on Instagram and Facebook stories. These interactive stories reflected our core themes – highlighting the science and ingenuity behind the UK’s victory in the Battle. These interactive stories were some of our most popular and engaging content.

Podcasts are popular with our primary audience, so we collaborated with The National Archive (TNA) and the RAF Museum in the production of a special episode of TNA’s popular podcast series, On the Record. This episode, titled Untold Battle of Britain, revealed interesting and lesser-known stories of the Battle, that all fell within our central themes. This was a highly successful podcast episode. There were more than 2500 downloads of it by late October.

On Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 2020, the RAF’s senior leadership hosted a media event to project the organisation’s vision of the future, in support of the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Development. This event linked the innovation seen during the Battle of Britain to the necessity for the RAF to relentlessly innovate today, as it seeks to match the threats of the future​.

Our internal communications team shared much of this content on the RAF intranet, as we sought to make our internal audience proud of the RAF’s legacy, and how it connects to our future. This content became the most popular video-based content published on the RAF intranet since migrating to a new platform in 2018, outperforming all previous campaigns and events.

We have seen a positive shift in awareness. In nationally-representative polling released in November 2020, we found that:

  • nationally, the net amount of people that know little to nothing about the Battle has declined by 2%
  • one of our targeted segments has seen a dramatic decline of 9% in those that know little to nothing
  • in southeast England, our prioritised geographical area, the percentage of people that know little to nothing has declined by an even larger amount – a significant 14%

Perhaps more importantly, in a time of crisis, our campaign commemorated a moment when millions came together to repel a threat in the skies above us. Much of the engagement with our content linked the Battle of Britain to COVID-19, even though we ourselves did not explicitly do so. Some even labelled NHS and key workers “The Few” of 2020, to whom we owe so much. Though it isn’t measurable, we hope we helped to tap into the fabric of our nation, as it endures through the crisis.

    Image credits:
  • Charlie Haines (1)
  • Royal Air Force (2)