CovidComms Awards

Campaigning for the Hidden Heroes of the prison service

A campaign to recognise the work of prison, probation and youth justice officers gained celebrity endorsements and led to a Hidden Heroes Day

When people think of key workers, it is probably fair to say that staff in the prison, probation and youth justice services are not the first to come to mind. But the 76,000 staff in HM Prison and Probation Service and Youth Justice were asked to adapt to extraordinary ways of working during Covid-19 in circumstances where ‘lockdown’ has a different connotation and social distancing is not always possible.

Samantha Lancet-Grant, head of communications at HM Prison and Probation Service, was determined that their efforts should be recognised, both to boost staff morale and to increase public understanding of the roles that they play.

Working with the campaigns team at the Ministry of Justice, Lancet-Grant and her team created #HiddenHeroes and #JusticeHeroes. ‘We wanted to talk about how great our staff are because they don’t get the recognition of nurses et cetera,’ she explains. ‘We called it Hidden Heroes and part of the campaign was getting celebrities to do a public message to say ‘thank you’ to our hidden heroes, because we’ve got lots of them.’

The teams set several targets for the campaign. They wanted to gain the support of at least six high profile people, to generate at least ten pieces of coverage in both national newspapers and local press – without spending any money – and to reach at least 3,500,000 impressions through digital activity. (In the event, 16 positive media stories were placed, which included interviews with staff, highlighting their response to Covid-19, which included making PPE for the NHS, and prisoners thanking the staff. Outlets included The Daily Telegraph, BBC TV, Hackney Gazette, Women’s Hour on Radio 4 and a Stacey Dooley documentary on BBC Three.)

There were also two measures to assess whether Hidden Heroes had impacted staff morale: positive feedback and at least 70 per cent of staff needed to be aware of the campaign. But without access to mobile phones or computers during their shifts, the content had to be compelling enough for staff to take the time to access outside work.

The campaign, which launched in April 2020 shortly after lockdown, worked across multiple channels, including the service’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. A website was populated with thank you messages from members of the public, including families of prisoners. All internal channels were also used, including intranet blogs and all staff emails, while Hidden Heroes posters and paper newsletters were displayed in secure settings for those staff who do not regularly access the intranet. Letters of thanks from ministers, politicians and senior officials within the service were shared on the intranet, generating more than 44,000 views.


Messages of thanks and support from high profile influencers were shared both on social media, alongside external PR, and used for in-house content.

A supportive message from television presenter Piers Morgan, who has almost eight million followers on Twitter, achieved almost 360,000 views and generated around 9,600 likes.

A video from television actor Ross Kemp thanking #JusticeHeroes achieved 264,000 views and more than 2,400 likes. Other celebrities such as Robert (Judge) Rinder, boxers Frank Bruno and Nicola Adams, singer Noddy Holden and the Archbishop of Canterbury also posted messages of support.

The service worked with prison and probation charity The Butler Trust to both amplify the campaign’s messages and collaborate on content. This led the charity’s patron HRH Princess Anne to record a video thanking staff for their ‘character, fortitude and camaraderie’; she later visited five prisons in five weeks.

‘Sometimes the prisoners would stand up and bang things in their cells for the staff at 8pm on Thursdays,’ explains Lancet-Grant. ‘They knew about the NHS clapping, and were probably doing it for the healthcare staff as well.’

Some notes of thanks from prisoners were shared on social media, as were families saying thank you. ‘We also did get criticism from families on social media as well, because that is the one outlet they have about the justice system,’ she admits.

Working with The Butler Trust, they created a Hidden Heroes Day, which was publicised by posters on billboards and bus shelters. ‘We had Zoe Ball giving a shout-out to staff on the Breakfast Show,’ she adds. ‘It kind of build momentum, and I think for our staff it was just nice to see people recognising them and the work they were doing.’ Eight in ten staff (81 per cent) said they were aware of the campaign. ‘It is great to have this recognition and appreciation,’ said one, while another commented: ‘It’s made an otherwise relatively unknown profession, particularly probation work, more visible.’