Defra digital spend skyrockets as Tories ride Blue Planet wave

In 2015 and 2016, the environment department spent £0 on social media. In 2017, when Michael Gove took the helm, they spent nearly £70,000

Theresa May and Michael Gove have prioritised the environment in government messaging, as polling suggested that the Tories need to improve their record to woo younger voters. Photo: Dan Kitwood/WPA Pool/Getty

Social media spending by the UK government’s environment department jumped from literally nothing in 2016 to nearly £70,000 in 2017, according to data published via freedom of information.

This spending splurge took place during a year in which newly appointed environment secretary Michael Gove pursued a range of popular environmental policies, after a disastrous election campaign that saw the Conservatives come under fire for holding anti-conservationist positions. 

It brings the spending by the department to levels comparable with media organisations and other groups.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been grappling with significant cuts to its budget under the Conservative government, while facing a rapidly escalating workload as a result of Brexit, which is disproportionate to most other departments.

Defra has been earmarked to receive some of the government’s £3bn Brexit budget and Gove told the House of Lords last year that the department was increasing its staff count after a spate of redundancies in previous years.

A Defra spokesperson told Unearthed: “The main reason for increases to social media spending has been to support our recruitment campaigns to fill vital roles covering exiting the EU.

“Overall our social media output covers a broad range of topics and campaigns, including promoting the 25-year environmental plan, as we also undertake the ivory ban consultation and setting out our position on stopping the illegal wildlife trade.”

Blue Planet

During last year’s election campaign two of the most ‘viral’ news stories concerned Theresa May’s support for fox hunting and her decision to scrap a pledge to ban the ivory trade.

But since May pulled together a minority government – with the help of Northern Ireland’s DUP party – environmental issues such as the war on plastic waste have been prioritised in government messaging, coinciding with the success of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet sequel.

Polling from Tory think-tank Bright Blue last year concluded that the Conservatives should embrace environmentalism to engage younger voters, most of whom see climate change as the issue most often overlooked.

It was no surprise then that Conservative MPs sent a flurry of (seemingly coordinated) social media posts during Blue Planet II’s run that highlighted the government’s environmental policies.

While the prime minister has said the UK will show “global leadership” on plastic waste, Gove has backed a ban on pesticides that harm bees and promised a Brexit that “works for animals” after facing a backlash over a vote against a bill to re-introduce the principle of animal sentience into UK law.

Twitter

Most social media spending by Defra focused on Twitter (£43k), where the audience is more dominated by the media and political bubble, while the populist Facebook received £15k.

It stands to reason that the £9k spent on LinkedIn was dedicated to the department’s Brexit-driven recruitment drive.

The data only extends until 18/10/17, which means the department probably spent more in the remaining months of the year.

Last year, in the middle of election season, Unearthed and the Bureau Local analysed Facebook campaign ads by the major parties.

The environment didn’t feature much then, but now – less than a year later – talking green is all the rage.