Smaller teams, smaller budgets, tougher briefs. It has not been an easy 12 months in the communications world, and, as the first glimmers of an upturn appear on the horizon, PRWeek felt it would be a good time to reward the efforts of those in-house teams who have performed PR miracles on a tiny budget.
Our competition, devised in conjunction with integrated PR agency Launch Group, sought teams of three people or fewer who could demonstrate outstanding creativity in the face of limited resources. Marcus Waley-Cohen, one of the founders of drinks firm Firefly Tonics, was brought on to the judging team to help identify the entrepreneurial spirit that has made his business a success.
The winner, Thames Water's press office, distinguished itself from the competition on many fronts. It lost a team member at the beginning of a demanding period for the company and had no budget to make the business of water appealing to stakeholders. The work the team of three created, and the results it generated, shows just what can be done when the chips are down.
The two runners-up, both one-man bands, also demonstrated outstanding creative thinking linked to business outcomes. They lined up attention-generating events and content, enhanced by savvy use of digital tools.
All three teams profess having a tiny budget has actively enhanced their creativity, forcing them to throw out any industry assumptions about what to communicate and how.
Thames Water wins £15,000 worth of PR support from Launch Group. We will bring you the results of that campaign later in the year.
Danny Rogers, Editor, PRWeek
Claire Murphy, Consultant editor, PRWeek
Johnny Pitt, CEO, Launch Group
Andy Nash, Director of client strategy, Launch Group
Marcus Waley-Cohen, Co-founder Firefly Tonics
Team: Simon Evans, press office manager; Amy Dutton, press officer; Becky Johnson, press officer
At the start of 2009 the Thames Water media relations team was steeling itself for a challenging year ahead. Getting positive media coverage for a water firm is tough at the best of times. Not only do the public and media expect water to be free, but they also get frustrated by what they see as unnecessary roadworks, and they are uninterested in stories about sewage.
However, 2009 was particularly important for the company. Ofwat, the industry's economic regulator, was about to conduct its five-year price review, telling companies what they can charge customers and what they can invest in their pipes and sewers over the next five years. Thames Water needed £5bn to invest in improvements to ageing pipes and sewers, and so the media team needed to persuade the media and the public that this investment - and the accompanying price rise - was necessary.
This was on top of the team's ongoing job of fire-fighting negative media reports, and highlighting the benefits of the company's day-to-day activities. To add to the challenge, the PR team was cut from four to three people (and no budget) at the beginning of 2009.
It achieved its aims through a combination of advance planning, careful cultivation of influencers, clever piggy-backing on existing media, forward-thinking use of social media, and, perhaps more than anything else, a clear understanding of what journalists want from PROs.
Long before Ofwat's interim pricing decision, the team began talking to key journalists about why the price rises and the investment in pipes and sewers was so essential. It also took the risky decision to piggyback messages about the need for infrastructure upgrades on to its annual report announcement in April.
'Traditionally companies like ours don't draw attention to their annual reports,' explains press officer Becky Johnson. 'We need to make profits to reinvest in infrastructure, but the media rarely report it in this way. We did get negative stories about the profits we made, but it also gave us a platform to talk to journalists and the public about the need for the £5bn of repairs.'
Swaying the media
By November this advance planning and careful cultivation of opinion-formers was paying off. In a fairly typical piece of coverage, The Daily Telegraph's Rowena Mason wrote: 'You only have to look at a picture of a Victorian pipe to wonder whether you wouldn't rather pay a bit extra.'
In the end Ofwat allowed Thames Water to increase its prices by 3.3 per cent more than the cost of living. It was less than the 16 per cent the company had asked for, but as press office manager Simon Evans says: 'The decision was as favourable as could have been expected.'
For press officer Amy Dutton, the bravest decision they took was to start using Twitter to proactively deal with customer complaints. She says: 'It was a new area for the company, and it's not one many utility companies have looked at. Ofwat has a series of measures for how we respond to customer complaints and Twitter isn't one of them, but our job is to protect Thames Water's reputation, and we found this is a great way to do it for zero cost.'
The idea paid off when singer Lily Allen started telling her 2.1 million followers that her water had been cut off and describing Thames Water as 'crap'. Evans, the on-duty press officer, responded immediately, sending round an engineer to investigate and apologising to the singer. It quickly transpired that the fault lay with an engineer, not Thames Water, and Allen admitted her mistake and issued an apology. Dutton comments: 'Someone like her has the power to destroy your corporate reputation overnight.'
It is not only in its use of emerging communications channels that the Thames Water team has been creative. As a former PA newsman, Evans has a good feel for what the media want.
He explains: 'Companies like ours tend to think big budget projects are news, but it's not always the case. Very often journalists are more interested in something smaller but quirkier, like a YouTube film we recorded last December on a £200 camera of sewermen singing about the dangers of washing fat down the drain. The Singing Sewermen achieved more than 100 pieces of coverage and got 150,000 hits on BBC News online.'
He adds: 'Journalists don't want dull press releases packed with jargon. They want creative ideas, tailored to their publication and imaginatively expressed. For years we've converted human waste into energy, but it was only when we launched our Poo Power campaign that we got coverage.'
Evans concludes: 'Many companies have large marketing and PR budgets and don't know how to spend them. I'd rather not have a large budget because it forces us to work harder and come up with great ideas. Above all else it focuses our minds on the basic test of media relations: would this story interest someone down the pub?'
Danny Rogers - 'The Ofwat decision could have prompted negative coverage; they did well to head that off. The Singing Sewermen was a clever idea.'
Johnny Pitt - 'In a difficult trading environment for utilities, Thames Water's PR team went on the attack.'
Marcus Waley-Cohen - 'They've packaged something essentially quite boring up into some really creative PR stories.'
BULLDOG NATURAL GROOMING
Team: Patrick Hobbs, comms manager
Budget: Less than £8,000
Simon Duffy and Rhodri Ferrier are nothing if not brave. In July 2007 they launched Bulldog Natural Grooming, a skincare brand for men. No doubt people told them that going up against big brands such as Gillette, L'Oreal, and Nivea would prove a mistake, and most likely a costly one, but they were not deterred.
Three years later the firm is thriving. It has a prominent place on the shelves of Tesco and Boots, retail sales of more than £1.5m in the UK, and in the past 12 months the brand has launched in Scandinavia, Japan and the US. It still only has four staff, one of whom is communications manager Patrick Hobbs.
He was recruited in July 2008, at the age of just 23, having acquired a degree in marketing and spent a year at Freud Communications. He has fully justified his employers' confidence, gaining more than 180 pieces of coverage in the past year from a budget of less than £10,000. Highlights have included interviews on CNBC, Sky News, BBC News, BBC 2's Working Lunch, and key coverage in The Sunday Times, Daily Express, Financial Times and the Mail On Sunday.
He attributes this success to a focus on innovation. 'Our competitors have budgets in the tens of millions of pounds,' he explains. 'We've focused on our product attributes, and we've had to come up with some bright new ideas.'
The most notable innovation was David Mitchell's Soap Box - witty podcast rants by the Peep Show comedian that ran between March and July 2009 on meetthebulldog.com, The Guardian online, FHM.com and iTunes.
Hobbs says: 'This was by far the bravest decision we took in the past 12 months. Our segment traditionally uses big Hollywood stars to endorse products, but we didn't have the budget, so we thought we'd try something that hadn't really been done before - online comedy shows.'
The podcasts gained coverage in The Sun, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, and achieved three million views, making it one of the most downloaded shows in iTunes history.
Looking ahead, Hobbs will be heading up the PR for the launch into the US, and is looking forward to developing more innovative and inexpensive ideas for that market. He says: 'I'm still only 25, so this is a great opportunity.'
Part of what persuaded him to make the move was the passion of the founders for their products, and for using PR to tell other people about it. 'When I was at college we studied advertising, and traditional marketing techniques,' he says. 'But the real entrepreneurial success stories like Innocent and Firefly have been built using PR.'
He concludes with this advice for anyone looking to emulate his success: 'Understand the points of difference in your products and use the advantages you have as a smaller player. Respond more rapidly to media enquiries than your competitors, be first to comment on a new event, and get your spokespeople to be forthright and interesting.'
Johnny Pitt - 'Great brand, with the PR rigour, focus and excellence of implementation to match.'
Danny Rogers - 'This is a shining example of digital PR that directly impacted on business objectives. The breadth of distribution of the David Mitchell podcasts was impressive.'
Team: James Aldous, marketing manager
Budget: £7,000 (£550 on the two volunteering events)
Thames21 is a charity dedicated to caring for London's rivers and canals. It has a staff of 20 and in 2008 James Aldous joined, taking on responsibility for all marketing and PR. In the past year, he has gained coverage in more than 390 articles or broadcasts including BBC Newsnight and The Daily Telegraph.
He has achieved this firstly by not letting a small budget limit his creativity, and secondly by using online media to reach people. He explains: 'Very often big budgets can get in the way of good ideas. You just pour your money into advertising and marketing campaigns. At Thames21 we don't have that luxury.'
Perhaps the most striking idea in the past year was the 'Flash Mob the Foreshore' campaign. Thames21 ran four volunteering events on consecutive days in August 2009, only announcing the location just before the events. Announcements were made on radio and in local papers, but by far the greatest buzz was generated online with emails sent to existing volunteers and forwarded, coverage on flash mob community sites, and a surge in the number of Thames21's Twitter followers.
Using online media in this way not only kept costs low, it also appealed to a younger net-savvy audience who were enthused by the idea of the flash mob and sympathised with the charity's aims. More than 200 volunteers turned up and the events were reported in the London Evening Standard and on BBC World Service Radio.
While that was a particularly successful campaign, Aldous believes his bravest decision was to run a campaign around the fact that in March 2010 London would have the lowest daytime tide for five years. He explains: 'The tide going out that far would reveal parts of the riverbed that we don't normally see. We'd see all the plastic bags there. So I wanted to run an event showing the supermarkets what happens to all the bags they give away.'
He continues: 'We had success getting the retailers on board with these "Deep Clean" events. Five leading retailers provided quotes of support, and staff volunteers from three firms took part. We got ten national newspaper and agency photographers on the foreshore. The problem was that in the days before the event we had a lot of rain, and this pushed a layer of organic matter on to the riverbed, so the visuals weren't as strong as they could have been.'
But it still gained coverage. Third Sector magazine ran a picture of Asda staff helping pull out an Asda shopping trolley, and BBC Newsnight, BBC London radio and television, ITV London and LBC all joined the team on the foreshore for live or pre-recorded reports.
This media coverage has produced important results. Traffic to the charity's website has risen 39 per cent in the past year. The charity raises funds by running corporate team events and it has experienced a 31 per cent rise in the number of enquiries for these, and a 97 per cent growth in revenue from them.
Andy Nash - 'Effective use of digital, clever news timing and neat, simple innovation - all on limited resources'.
Claire Murphy - 'This shows what one person armed with a few hundred pounds can do. The increase in revenue from corporate team events is a measure of the effectiveness of James' ideas.'