Media Relations: The quietest time of all?

While media lore states summer months are slow for news, Lynne Roberts finds out why PROs should be pitching both fun and serious stories to journalists at this time of year.

A giant rabbit, the obesity of medieval monks and a progress update on ubiquitous earth-bound asteroids - all classic stories that have hit the media this summer.

Although last year saw a return to a more serious news agenda with the pages dominated by the fallout from the Iraq war, the question is raised of whether the summer is the perfect time of year to dedicate more PR activity when there isn't, traditionally, as much hard news around due to the parliamentary recess.

Television News Release managing director David Wallace is one advocate of more activity scheduled into the summer months. 'It's the one time of the year that PROs should be working really hard to get their stories through,' he says. 'This is just the time when PR-driven stories, which would not normally get column inches or air time, become a godsend to journalists and broadcast stations.'

And contrary to popular belief, circulation figures for national newspapers in recent years have remained stable, even, in some cases, increasing in July and August. In 2003, average ABC figures for July to September were 3,531,000 for The Sun and 920,000 for The Daily Telegraph, against 3,495,000 and 909,000 over the rest of the year, respectively.

PR in the holidays

There is another argument that when people take a summer break, they're likely to pay more attention to what they read. But it's also worth remembering, adds Hill & Knowlton corporate comms MD Stuart Wilson, the summer holiday audience tends to be people with kids of school age, students and teachers who go away over the peak period, while others tend to avoid these times and are still avid followers of the media in the summer.

While there has traditionally been a lull in news stories during this period, says Borkowski PR founder Mark Borkowski, the so-called 'silly season' is dying out because clients are becoming more risk averse: 'It was always a time for great publicity stunts, but poor use in the past has created negative publicity, which has resulted in a lack of interest. People would rather not do anything, which is a shame.'

RSPCA head of PR Ann Grain, however, says that even though MPs are not around, not to use the summer months is a wasted opportunity. 'We have in the past run successful campaigns such as "don't leave your dog in a hot car",' she says. 'We also run campaigns encouraging tourists to think twice about attending bull fights and to encourage them not to buy exotic pets while abroad.'

Furthermore,when parliament is in recess, MPs are more likely to be in their constituencies, absorbing the news. Considering the likely captive audience and the fact that journalists are struggling to fill space, the season is arguably still underused.

Journalists across the media tend to agree that they have to work harder over the summer, despite the tendency towards a hard news agenda over the past couple of years. The Press Association deputy features editor Cathy Winston says: 'It seems to get quieter from both a news and PR perspective - you get the impression that everyone winds down, especially in August. Before the recess, the papers are packed with political stories, but beyond that there's all but nothing, and we can be scrabbling around for consumer news or a survey.'

So what are journalists looking for? In order to take full advantage of whatever is happening at the time, creativity is key. 'It is hugely competitive out there 12 months of the year, there are so many people vying for coverage, whether it is human interest stories, big business or anything in between,'

explains Porter Novelli director Christine Cea. Certain products naturally tend towards summer campaigns. It can be the ideal time to promote consumer personal finance products such as credit cards, holiday spending and car insurance. The pitfall to avoid, she adds, is to latch on to the same hooks that are exploited by competitors.

Journalists say the biggest misconception among PROs is that reporters want just light stories during the summer. 'We are looking for serious issues that deserve prominence but have to compete at other times,' says BBC News Online assistant editor Daniel Coles. 'We are less interested in product launches, unless they have a broader value, but research-driven stories are interesting.'

Coles also points to the different opportunities afforded by online media.

'A website is different in that it is not constrained so much by time and space,' he adds. 'We don't have the pressure of having an exact amount of material, but on the other hand we always have space for something interesting.'

Channel 4 News senior home news editor Yvette Edwards says the quality threshold for stories to get commissioned does not change during the summer, so the pressure is on journalists to come up with interesting and original ideas. 'It is certainly true that there is more programme space up for grabs if there is a decent story to be had,' she explains.

While there are more opportunities in the summer, the same rules apply as throughout the rest of the year, and a good story will make the news agenda regardless of the competition. As Jackie Cooper PR founding partner Robert Phillips advises: 'If you believe in the myth of the silly season you can spend much time and resources with very little result.'

Indeed, every journalist wants news, but they don't want any old rubbish to fill a space.

THE RED BULL FLUGTAG

Red Bull

The Red Bull Flugtag was held in Hyde Park in August 2003. It involved 40 members of the public launching homemade 'flying machines' off a ramp into the Serpentine.

Objectives

To support a nationwide advertising campaign and raise awareness of the event.

Strategy

An official website was launched. Regional teams were used to leverage case studies in regional and student press, and interviews were made available with a celebrity judging panel.

Coverage

In-house evaluation showed a total reach of 37 million was achieved, with 16 million reached through national press and 13 million via broadcast media.

Results

More than 150,000 people attended the event. More than 85 per cent of post-event coverage used images distributed by Red Bull.

THE BECKHAM TRAIL

London Borough of Waltham Forest

Objectives

To raise the profile of a relatively anonymous London borough by capitalising on the fame of ex-resident David Beckham.

Strategy

The England captain's schools, parks and old haunts were presented as a trail with directions for pedestrians and motorists, along with descriptions and quotes from teachers. Originally written for the council magazine in May 2003, it was then recreated for the website, and a press release was sent to trade and national media.

Coverage

The Evening Standard dedicated a page to the trail the Friday after the launch and the story was picked up by every national newspaper that weekend.Requests for interviews came from national broadcast media, as well as from Germany, South Africa and Japan.

Results

In its first month, the website generated more than 84,000 hits per day. The trail was translated into Japanese and then Spanish.

LIFE-AFTER-DEATH PROMOTION

Frank PR for New Scientist

Frank PR was appointed to handle the summer 2002 relaunch of New Scientist. It devised a promotion offering one reader the opportunity to win 'life after death', with a first prize of cryogenic preservation upon the winner's demise.

Objectives To boost circulation. To broaden the appeal of the magazine and push the message that science is for everyone.

Strategy

A VNR was produced with spokesperson Chrissie Derivaz, who had signed up at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan where the winner's treatment would commence. The magazine's editor was also made available for interviews to discuss the treatment.

Coverage Coverage appeared in a range of national print, broadcast and online media, as well as international media from Australia, Europe, the US and the Far East.

Results

The relaunch issue was the highest selling in the history of the magazine, and the increase was sustained over the period of promotion and beyond.

RIBENA DONKEYS

Porter Novelli for Ribena

To promote its sponsorship of Shrek 2, Ribena ran a 'win a donkey' competition, offering a real donkey and 10,000 toys.

Objectives

To build Ribena's credentials as a credible, contemporary teen brand.

Strategy

The inflatable toys were sent to celebrities and put in an appearance at major sporting events and concerts, including Wimbledon and Euro 2004.

Coverage

The donkeys appeared in national and regional newspapers and on the BBC and Sky Sports. The Independent ran a two-page feature on 'Britain's love of the donkey'. An inflatable donkey sold for £122 on eBay, and real beach donkeys were given a day off work.

Results

In-house evaluation showed widespread growth in brand awareness within the 13 to 19-year-old market.

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