Can fighting an unwinnable battle be good PR?

The question of ‘winning’ is not usually subjective, but sometimes those who technically lose, end up getting the outcome they wanted. All thanks to the publicity gained off the back of fighting an unwinnable battle.

Last week (24 June 2019) three families took the Government to the High Court, accusing it (namely Damian Hinds and Phillip Hammond) of acting unlawfully in the allocation of special educational needs (SEND) funding. The argument is a simple one, that the Government’s funding policy (set in the 2018 Budget) is not sufficient to enable local authorities and schools to meet their statutory duties.

A decision on the hearing has been delayed until a later date, but, much like the accusations against Boris Johnson and his Brexit manifesto claims, it is highly unlikely that the High Court will feel able to find the Government guilty because of the can of worms that would open.

Probably though, the result of the hearing is irrelevant. The court case was covered by almost every major national newspaper and broadcaster in the UK, and the messaging was clear. The bringing of this case was not about having the Government found guilty, it was about highlighting a specific cause – the dire lack of funding for SEND provision and the real impact it is having on children’s lives. I don’t have a crystal ball, but my guess would be that the Department for Education will be announcing a review of the budget for SEND provision fairly soon.

That outcome is all very well when it concerns a cause that most rational people will get behind, but does it work in a commercial scenario?

The answer is yes, it can. Every situation is different, but I supported a retailer many years ago that was in a similar situation. In this instance it was in court over licensing laws that it was being accused of flouting. The retailer knew it would lose the case. It also felt very strongly that the law was wrong and allowed businesses to exploit their customers. Rather than hide away and hope the case went by unnoticed as a low-profile hearing – which it would have done – they instructed PR support to shout about the case. We went out pro-actively and managed the messaging so that the case became one business fighting for consumer rights against a big beast of an industry. They lost the case and were hit with a hefty fine – which they would have received anyway – but the coverage they achieved boosted sales, which more than covered the fine.

Going out all guns blazing to fight the unwinnable fight is not always going to be an advisable PR strategy – in fact it is often inadvisable – but it is always worth looking at every situation and assessing what approach to take regarding the messaging, and how different approaches can support different desired outcomes.


David Martin is CEO of Be Known Communications


(For those interested, the SEND funding case can be found here:

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