Reservists play an important role in the UK's armed forces - there are around 46,000 paid volunteer reservists, accounting for nearly a fifth of the nation's military personnel.
Spread among the Territorial Army, Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Marines Reserve and Royal Auxiliary Air Force, the Volunteer Reserve Forces (VRF) provide the military with trained expertise at times of heightened operational demands.
In all, 5,000 reservists were called up for duty during the recent Iraq war. Some are still there, carrying out humanitarian and peacekeeping duties, and, as PRWeek went to press, a further 1,200 were about to be mobilised.
At the same time, however, most members of the VRF hold down full-time civilian jobs, which they must leave while serving on active duty. The support of civilian employers is vital to the MoD's ability to maintain the size and strength of the VRF.
In September last year, the MoD launched a campaign to encourage employer support for Britain's Reserve Forces. Entitled SaBRE, the operation featured a PR campaign through Fishburn Hedges.
At the time the campaign started, however, it was not clear that employer support for the Reserve Forces would take on a new significance as preparations for the Iraq war prompted the largest call-up of reservists since the 1956 Suez Crisis.
To communicate to employers that a reservist is a valuable asset to their business or organisation, as they receive training at no expense to the employer and bring those skills back to the workplace.
To launch SaBRE and raise awareness of the campaign, including the website address (www.sabre.mod.uk) and the helpline. To promote the website and helpline as valuable sources of information on employer-reservist issues.
Strategy and Plan
To underpin the PR strategy, the agency commissioned Leeds Business School to undertake research that would establish the actual financial value of the training reservists receive. This found that the average reservist receives training in civilian skills that would cost their employer more than £9,000 a year to provide.
These include 'soft' skills such as leadership and communication, as well as 'hard' skills from IT to health and safety. This figure, along with other research findings, was used as the basis for initial press releases.
Fishburn Hedges also developed a bank of case studies featuring reservists and their employers, with quotes on transferable skills and the value of their training, as well as an image library.
Journalists were then given as direct an experience as possible of reservist training, involving visits to exercises and, in some cases, first-hand participation. An Executive Stretch training weekend, for example, put teams through a range of challenging tasks.
These tasks were similar to those used by the military to train and test both regulars and reservists, and include evacuating 'casualties' from a bomb blast and evading 'enemy' ambushes.
Other events included the infamous 'Cambrian Patrol', noted for its gruelling test of skills and stamina, which is used by the selection board for Territorial Army officers.
However, the campaign landscape changed dramatically in late December and early January, when it was announced 5,000 reservists would be called up to serve alongside regulars in Iraq.
The focus then shifted to presenting SaBRE as an information source for both reservists and employers on their rights and obligations.
One concern the team prepared for was the potential shock for employers who were unaware of the number of reservists they employed who might be mobilised.
Following the announcement, the PR team set up a press office, issued fresh press releases and gave media training to SaBRE campaign director Tim Corry to act as its spokesman.
Case studies of employers and reservists were sourced. One example was Centrica, which had 18 called-up reservists in employment, so an interview was carried out with the firm's group human resources director Anne Minto.
Measurement and Evaluation
Almost all of the coverage was - as planned - written by human resources, business and general correspondents rather than specialist defence journalists.
Independent evaluation of the campaign, and opinion research among employers to assess its impact, is under way.
The campaign generated a good deal of broadcast coverage, with 11 interviews.
These included BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio 5 Live, London Tonight, BBC 2's Working Lunch, BBC Breakfast, CNN, Meridian TV and Central TV.
Print coverage included 67 articles in nationals, including The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Sun, and The Independent on Sunday, regional papers such as the Evening Standard and niche titles such as Real Business and Local Government Chronicle.
The Daily Telegraph's coverage (7 October 2002) noted that the training received by reservists would cost their civilian employers £9,000 and said: 'Reservists are now so important to the Army in particular, filling vital roles in the medical, intelligence, signals and logistics services, that they will soon have to be called up.'
The Evening Standard's Just the Job section (25 November 2002) explained the skills reservists need to get through the Cambrian Patrol in a full-page feature, and followed journalist Alex Hannaford's participation.
Research into employer opinion on the impact of the campaign has yet to be conducted, but SaBRE received 137,000 visitors to its website and 1,480 calls to the employer helpline in the first three months of this year.
Local Government Chronicle features editor Anne Gulland, who attended the Executive Stretch training as an observer, adds a note of caution, however.
She says: 'I think you could see the value of having reservist employees because of the amount of things they could learn in terms of soft skills.
But if you could see them learning skills more relevant to their job, that would be more convincing.'