Friday, 26 June 2009

Probably the Best PR Stunt in the World...

This week, Ben Southall, the winning candidate for the Hamilton Island caretaker job, aka the ‘Best Job in the World’, will be saying his last goodbyes to friends and family and making final preparations for his six month stint as the Queensland Tourist Board’s most high profile employee.

Meanwhile, in a perfectly-timed coincidence, the team of geniuses at Brisbane based creative agency CumminsNitro just picked up an eighth international award for the campaign which managed to capture the imaginations of newsrooms and consumers the world over.

And the plaudits, it must be said, are seriously well-deserved. This has to be, hands down, one of the greatest PR stunts in recent memory (let’s gloss over the fact that it was an ad agency that came up with the idea). What could have been just another all expenses paid, ‘holiday of a lifetime’ competition prize was transformed into an utterly original, totally compelling media story which has continued to run and run – simply because it was packaged in the right way.
You only need to note the success of The Apprentice, which this year pulled in more viewers than ever, to understand the appeal of the ‘ultimate job search’ format. And by compiling a shortlist made up of candidates from across the world, the Tourism Queensland team ensured they had a tailor-made story for every nation on their hitlist.

But what I love most about this campaign (and yes, I am sick with envy and wish I had come up with the idea myself) is that its timing was just impeccable. When the story broke back in January we were slap bang in the middle of a crippling global recession, the all-pervading sense of doom and gloom inescapable. In the UK in particular, we were in the midst of yet another cold and miserable winter: short, chilly days and long freezing nights still par for the course. Quite frankly, who wouldn’t want to escape the drudgery of their day-to-day existence by buggering off to an all-expenses-paid island on the Great Barrier Reef, where our only stress would be deciding which palm tree we should hang our hammock from? The genius of the ‘Best Job...’ campaign is that it appealed shamelessly to the escapist and dreamer within us all – and crept up on us at a time when we were at our most vulnerable.

The response was, not surprisingly, phenomenal. The organisers were swamped, with more than 32,000 entries from all over the world – god only knows how they managed to sift through them all. But sift they did, finding their perfect candidate in English charity worker Ben. No coincidence that the winner (sorry, I mean chosen candidate) came from the UK of course – as Oz’s second largest tourist market and one which saw a decline in 2008, it must have been a no-brainer.

The challenge now is maintaining the momentum once Ben is in post. Will the story have the same appeal now the position has been filled? Will thousands be checking in every week to read the latest instalment in Ben’s blog from paradise island extolling the virtues of tourism in Queensland? I suspect not. The story worked because it held the promise of escape for everyone who read it. Now, it’s just another guy living the dream while we, sadly, are not.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Brands and correct Twitter etiquette

As Twitter becomes more popular, brands and businesses are facing a dilemma – do they want to face their fears and welcome feedback from across the world or miss the Twitter boat altogether?

On one hand, it screams brand confidence if you open yourself up to support and criticism. It also ticks the box for really connecting with consumers through both visibility and honesty. There is one problem though – some companies have already been too slow off the mark, meaning that certain clever individuals have already claimed their name as their own. This could mean domain type purchases in the future or perhaps more devious plans. Either way, it would have perhaps been savvier of huge names like Disney to reserve their Twitter name, whether or not they were ready to get on board. It’s quick and easy to check if a brand name is available and there’s no excuse not to sign up for the sake of protecting what is being said about the brand you represent.

When a company (or its associated PR) has decided to delve into the world of Twitter, there’s one top tip which can’t be ignored – stay personal. This is the key to the success of Twitter and being just because you are a brand or company does not make you any different! Ask people’s opinions and encourage their input as well as offloading all your lovely PR headlines. Making sure just one or two people contribute to tweeting also means you will develop a recognisable voice and lend authenticity to your comments – followers want to track people not faceless companies.

There are many examples of how Twitter has been a huge success for companies, especially when it comes to customer care. Comcast, a cable provider in America is probably the most well known clocking up 22,000 customer care tweets by January 09. Computer Company Dell seems to be having a similarly positive response, answering any customer queries or complaints instantly without the need to suffer telephone hold music. The message is that it is possible to have a great response from consumers on Twitter; you just need to stick to its guiding principles and remember that in the social networking universe, who you are and what you’ve got to say is just as important as the next person.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Big Brother, Where Art Thou?

Now the dust has settled following last week’s Big Brother launch, I feel I am now ready to pass judgment on this year’s motley assortment of desparados, wannabes and weirdos, thrown together by fate (and a bunch of misguided casting directors) all in the name of popular entertainment.

However, after cringing my way through the initial hour and a half launch show, I somehow don’t think I’ll be watching much of this year’s series – and not just because my husband has threatened to divorce me if my finger so much as hovers with intent over the well-worn E4 button on the TV remote.

Watching these poor fools make their entrance into the house last week, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to be struck by a disturbingly misogynistic trend. Almost all of the women who entered the house were booed furiously, while the men, on the whole, received good-natured cheers. There were a few notable exceptions of course, namely Iranian bighead Siavesh and posh twit Freddie, whose idiotic posturing and crowd-baiting were to blame for their scathing receptions – but by and large, the female contingent’s greatest crime appeared to be, well, being female.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the ladies in question were necessarily deserving of a royal reception – Big Brother is a pantomime after all, and what pantomime doesn’t boo the baddies and cheer the goodies? It’s just this automatic assumption that girls are all nasty and boys are all nice which worries me somewhat. Even more distressing is the knowledge that the launch night audience was largely made up of – yes, you guessed it – women.
Not that the casting directors are doing us womenfolk any favours. Let’s see: we have the obligatory bottle blonde, mega-boobed porn star (attractive and doesn’t mind getting her kit off – big boo for you young lady!), the gorgeous Irish lass who chirruped away in her VT about exposing her ‘flangita’ in public (who do you think you are – Britney? Another big boo), followed by a second, arguably superfluous glamour girl and WAG-wannabe (cue more boos, hisses etc).
Then, at the other end of the spectrum, we have the bi-curious manhater who sees men as sperm donors, the super-butch, frankly terrifying lesbian who enjoys chasing straight girls (nice bit of gay stereotyping by the way Mr Casting Director) and, possibly one of the strangest contestants ever to grace the Big Brother house, Russian oddball Angel - ostensibly the lovechild of a Victorian circus ringmaster and Helena Bonham-Carter in Sweeney Todd.

Not exactly the greatest advertisement for womankind, I’ll grant you – but then, you have to wonder how many ‘normal’ women would be insane enough to want to take part in this battle for supremacy between the mindblowingly egotistical and fantastically stupid that BB has now become.

Call me old-fashioned, but I quite liked the days when Big Brother was just about watching the housemates fall over after drinking too much cider and engage in the odd embarrassing fumble under the duvet.

But it looks like I’m behind the times. These days, according to the programme-makers and commissioning editors at Channel 4, it’s all about shock value and confrontation television. Which leads me to wonder: am I really the only one who wants them all to just get along?

Monday, 8 June 2009


So, The Telegraph's riotous revelations about MP's expenses didn't stop it losing circulation year-on-year in May.

Despite dominating the entire UK news agenda for month, bringing about the near collapse of Gordon Brown’s ailing Government, destroying the careers of Blair’s Babes and ultimately exposing our elected representatives for the corrupt cheats they are - the Daily Telegraph's average daily sales still fell from 862,966 in May 2008 to 836,410 last month.

Yes, they brought us sordid story after sordid story of floating duck islands, moat clearing and bath plug claims - but somehow all this wasn’t enough to stop their own circulation from sinking.
Just goes to show what a tough time our newspapers are having right now. Who needs the Telegraph when you have Twitter? More and more of us it seems. And what a shame.

Ask most people if they want to save the newspaper industry – and they’d say yes. Getting us to actually carrying on buying papers is quite another. It seems we all have a touch of the Hazel hypocrisy about us.

However, the Telegraph’s hard work wasn’t entirely in vain. The MP mayhem meant they were the top performing national quality daily newspaper for this period and compared with April, sales were up by an average of 2.3 per cent a day.

Yes they deserved more (for sparing us from anymore Blears alone) – but these are bad times for broadsheets.

I know that the very concept of paid for subscriptions has been dismissed by those in the know – but I am not so sure this thought can last. Even Murdoch has changed his tune of late, recently announcing on his Fox network that, “the age of free access to newspaper websites will come to an end, with a paid subscription model supplanting the current freebie system.”

It is figuring out how to capitalise on web based newspapers that has eluded the industry so far. Murdoch’s prediction of a subscription based business has been impractical to sell, given that web users will simply move to a website that is free - in a world with seemingly limitless content. But surely, the lack of a comprehensive, industry wide strategy is the real issue here?

The Telegraph has proved once and for all that the world has a need for quality reporting. The country mustn’t be allowed to forget what it has achieved (and we haven’t got anywhere near the end of the story yet). So newspaper chiefs – strike whilst the iron is hot. The country needs you – don’t let us forget it.

Friday, 5 June 2009

All Hail Mary, Queen of the Shops! (Charity shops that is...)

Now, I’m a big shopper. I spend before I look at a price tag, and I leave checking my bank balance until just before the very point that my bank card is rejected. But when all is said and done, everyone loves a bargain.

Thanks to the credit crunch, rolling up your sleeves and having a good delve in the bargain baskets in true British spirit is back in fashion. And boy, does retail guru Mary Portas know it.
For those who don’t know, Portas made history yesterday when she threw open the doors to her Living & Giving charity shop – slap bang in the middle of the UK’s poshest new shopping centre, Westfield London. It’s all tied in with the new series of Mary Queen of Shops of course, which sees Mary strap on her Blahniks and tread a very different road (one seemingly more familiar with the silver haired generation) into the murky land of the charity shop. Take a left at the tea shop and keep walking...

Episode one kicked off on Tuesday. Swinging in the store with her auburn bob and sharp tongue, Mary was put through her paces and forced to face facts about the state of charity shops. Now, any keen shopper on a budget will appreciate it’s not all plain sailing – shoulder pads (80’s originals, not Balmain), lycra moments and misshapen t-shirts abound. But if you perservere, there are a few gems hidden amongst them, including a gorgeous vintage Ralph Lauren riding jacket I recently discovered in Greenwich for £30!

But super Mary quickly took the reins, organising the window displays she’s famous for and merchandising the store like a business: pretty things at the front, keeping the toy twins to just a couple of shelves...

But behind the philanthropic guise Mary is a clever, clever woman. Known for hoisting Harvey Nichols to the upper echelons of society, she is taking charity shops and making them cool, to the kid on Twitter no less. Just a quick search will achieve 100’s of responses, all watching, all debating – and she’s there striking up conversations, making them feel their opinions count.
Gok is the face of the average woman – the woman with flaws, lumps and bumps and every day hang-ups. Trinny and Susannah passed the fashion crown on to him and he will, soon enough, pass it on to Mary - ruler of the eco shop and queen of reclaimed fashion.

Meanwhile, coverage on the back of yesterday’s launch has been storming in. Blogs are rife with debate, nationals hot on her heels and her show is gathering an audience – most watched for the 9pm slot is no mean feat!

Behind it all is her Grazia pop up shop, tweeting live from the event: “OMG - Louboutin have just donated to our shop!!!!!!!!!!!!” Taking more than 10k on Day One, Mary is truly spreading the word and reaping the rewards.

But when it’s all over, after Grazia has been recycled and the nationals are stored away on the Internet archives, it will be Mary who remains the point of interest. Not charity shops and their mothball filled joy.

Leaving us with the real question – who will she pass the crown to?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The EU is not making its case

My thoughts in the last few days have turned increasingly towards Europe and, strangely enough, it has nothing to do with the summer holidays and me doing my bit to help shrink the European Union’s wine lake.

Today’s European elections have led, once again, to a debate about the merits of British membership of the European Union (EU). Frankly, although I would regard myself as moderately pro-European, I’m now getting bored of trying to defend the EU when it does so little to defend itself.

Did you know, for example, that the West Midlands has secured £575m in European Structural Funds that has been allocated to more than 400 projects across the region in the last six years? Were you aware that the European Social Fund has given more than £316m for West Midlands projects to support education and training to combat long term unemployment?

Would you like to know about some of the projects that this money has been spent on in our region? Well, so would I.

Now it may be that I’m a particularly hopeless Google searcher, but I cannot find a single case study or press release on the internet to help explain how EU money has helped the West Midlands. I know it’s been spent, but I cannot find out where it’s been spent and what the effects are.

This communication vacuum is a godsend to the UK Independence Party and anti-EU activists in the mainstream parties and media, allowing them to redirect the debate towards alleged corruption and bureaucracy. The Sun screaming that “MEPs are all millionaires in five years” is a case in point.

On Sunday, when the results become known, it is likely that fringe parties like UKIP, who advocate total withdrawal from the EU, will make big gains. EU Commissioners will be heard, once again, to complain that all the British really want is a vast free trade area, on the lines of the original Treaty of Rome, and are not interested in closer economic and political integration.

My answer to that is: if you don’t communicate with people you cannot expect their support.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Clearing out the dead wood

The demise of LDV yesterday is a bitter blow to both the van manufacturer, its workforce and the company’s supply chain, but it was probably inevitable. I had hoped that Weststar had a plan for the company’s future, niche green or biofuel vans or something, but in all honesty it was always going to be a long shot.

However, as we begin what is likely to be the long and tortuous process of lifting ourselves out of recession, one or two things are becoming increasingly clear, namely that this recession will probably be more cleansing than catastrophic. The fear, as little as 3-4 months ago, was that good businesses of all sizes would be forced to the wall because of the dire economic news. That concern is now beginning to lift as the credit markets thaw and lending begins again as banks get used to their new status of being publicly owned.

With hindsight, we may therefore look back on this recession as being a cathartic clearing out of dead wood companies that have teetered on the brink, even in the good times. LDV will now unfortunately go into history alongside another acronym, MFI, and other companies which have failed to keep pace with the times, such as Woolworths and Whittards of Chelsea.

The path to insolvency for each of these companies was eerily familiar. A gradual loss of market share and consumer confidence, management buy-outs promising to resurrect the brands, fierce competition from massive, often global companies, able to exploit huge economies of scale, failure to adapt to changing market dynamics and an inability to identify and seize opportunities.

A former colleague of mine who advised Whittards told me once that the company really missed the boat with the explosion of the coffee shop culture of the late 90s and the rise of Starbucks. It limped on for a while, but the end was inevitable. The same goes for LDV.

Monday, 1 June 2009

A Necessary Evil?

According to a recent survey by the PRCA, AVE is still the evaluative method of choice for most PRs – funny that, since anecdotal evidence suggests that most of us aren’t big fans.

The reality, of course, is that the majority of PRs only use it (albeit in tandem with other more qualitative methods) for want of a truly viable alternative. And while the debate over AVE’s credibility as a method continues to rage on, we seem to be no closer to finding our evaluative holy grail.

AVE is an inexact science which reduces all the many subleties and nuances of a great PR campaign to the most basic level. It ignores all manner of vital campaign elements – not least the individual PR needs of the client – and encourages a culture of going after the big hit titles with sky high ad rates instead of working out what will really benefit your client in the long run.

From a footfall-driving perspective, it’s far more valuable for a small independent retailer in Birmingham to get half a page splash in the Birmingham Mail than a double page spread in The Times – but the AVE ruling will always find in favour of the paper with the highest circulation.

What’s more, the entire concept of AVE is fundamentally flawed. Equating editorial with advertising is like comparing oranges with apples – hence the popularity of the ‘PR value’ school of thought, which multiplies the AVE by three on the basis that you’re three times more likely to read, recall and retain a piece of editorial than an advert. And don’t even get me started on online PR measurement, for which there appears to be no consistent methods at all.

Regardless of what approach you take, there’s no escaping the fact that measuring the success of PR just isn’t that cut and dried. But in today’s economic climate, the pressure to justify the value of what we do and prove to clients that PR is making a difference to their bottom lines is greater than ever.

Monitoring key messages and developing complex KPIs can certainly appear impressive, but in essence it’s pretty simple: clients like numbers. Better than that, they like big numbers (except when we’re talking fees, of course). And if you can’t provide those all-important number-crunching stats, it’s very difficult for clients to argue your case to the big boss when budget review time comes around.

Love them or hate them, AVEs are still a part of the PR system for many of us. And, until the industry comes up with something better, they’ll continue to be – as long as we are ruled by market forces which demand we prove our worth in a lingo that everyone understands: the language of money.

Fortunately for those of us who work in the retail & leisure sector, there’s another, far more telling indicator of a PR campaign’s success: footfall. Because if you tell them, they will come. (Well, if you tell them in a way that’s engaging, relevant and using the right media channels.) With footfall figures, there’s nothing to hide behind, no numerical wizardry involved – just cold, hard, indisputable facts. Now there’s a thought.