ANALYSIS: Christmas comes early for consumer PR shops - It may be six months until the festive season gets underway but the emerging tradition of 'Christmas in July' is seeing PR drives crank into action earlier than ever, says Peter Simpson

Christmas comes early for consumer PR shops - It may be six months until the festive season gets underway but the emerging tradition of 'Christmas in July' is seeing PR drives crank into action earlier than ever, says Peter Simpson. Over on the aptly named Noel Street in central London last week, a two-day Christmas party took place under a July sun and summer showers.

The bash was for consumer PR shop Attenborough Associates, and saw some 200 journalists attend over 48 hours. Many of them departed clutching bulging press packs, stuffed notepads, contacts galore, and an armful of samples.

'This is the new season for Christmas PR,' says MD Nick Attenborough, who had emptied his offices of furniture to host a mini-conference and indulge clients and journalists.

In lifestyle, consumer and other relevant journalists' circles, this festival of freebies, rich food and drink is fast becoming known as 'Christmas in July' - and an established summer tradition.

For the fourth year, Attenborough turned boardrooms, workstations and lobbies into a bustling bazaar where clients exhibited their Christmas 2002 wares. Journalists were enticed to try them out in the hope of glowing copy about them in their respective autumn editions.

'Too early for the Christmas pitch? No way,' says Attenborough: 'If you were to hold such an event any later than the first two weeks of July, you'll miss the long-lead times for many of the important monthly consumer magazines.'

Many of his clients are among the 14 companies displaying their Christmas 2002 wares at the show. These include Avon, furniture makers The Cotswold Company, Littlewoods, NEC, Past Times, SF Cody, Stuart Crystal, toy maker Tomy, and Wedgwood.

It is not just Attenborough that has cottoned on to this idea. In-house PROs say such events are more successful and cheaper than staging standalone press days. They take advantage of a 'one-stop shop for journalists', and yet have less of the pre-event organisation.

More and more agencies turn their offices into exhibition halls for a day or two in July to enhance the big pitch-and-push for Christmas editorial.

Scores of consumer publications from Loaded to Good Housekeeping plan production schedules in the run up to Christmas three months ahead, putting Christmas gift features to bed in September ready for the October and November editions.

And to make the process function as smoothly as possible, PR firms including Attenborough, Yellow Door and Wild Card PR, collude to ensure their mini PR fairs do not clash during this intense fortnight.

'We ring round to ensure our dates don't clash so as to ensure journalists get to all the open days,' said Wild Card MD Kate Wild: 'Thankfully for ours it was raining hard and gloomy outside so it felt more seasonal.'

'It's becoming more popular among the short-lead journalists as well as long-lead publications. We had The Times and Telegraph, people we would normally contact in September. They attend to make sure they're up to date and informed of what's available,' says Wild, whose clients include Dartington Crystal and the Hemp Paper Company.

Yellow Door held its own party this week. Among its clients are fashion designer Ronit Zilkha and luxury goods brand Alfred Dunhill. 'If anything, Christmas in July is getting earlier because of new printing technology,' says Yellow Door account director Alison Clark.

'July is most important in the consumer PR calendar,' explains Attenborough, with one eye on the otherwise quiet news agenda and therefore an ability to sell material in that might otherwise fail to impress some publications.

And Attenborough's bash is becoming a collegiate affair. Consolidated Communications sent staff along to pitch products of wine-making client Ernest & Julio Gallo. The BBC Worldwide press office also had a stall on Noel Street, displaying latest video and book products from its Teletubbies brand.

'This is the first year that BBC Worldwide has attended but it's a good idea to talk to journalists who will be writing about our products,' says BBC Worldwide press officer Neelam Tanday, who was on duty at the Tomy stall - the firm makes Teletubbies kit - during the two day show.

'The latest products that will be among the Christmas push will be made available for consumers by the end of September so it's important to secure coverage now ensuring consumers are aware of gifts in time for Christmas,' says Tandey.

'Does this type of PR fair make any difference to sales? That's an age-old question but its very useful in explaining and demonstrating the products to journalists so they have first-hand knowledge of the product they will be writing about,' she adds.

And Avon Cosmetics consumer PR manager, Sarah Geden, also pitched her stall for the first time at Attenborough's office: 'It's more cost-effective than standalone events, and it's fun to pool the different products as it adds to the atmosphere by mirroring Christmas shopping. We'll be regulars.'

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