A two-year programme to break the 40-year-old altitude record for a manned balloon flight ended in failure last month. The balloon - 1,250 feet tall and designed to reach a height of 25 miles - developed a tear in its thin fabric while being inflated on an experimental platform 15 miles off the Cornish coast. The attempt was sponsored by QinetiQ, an offshoot of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. The company is two-thirds owned by the Government and one-third by US buy-out house Carlyle.
To use its £2m sponsorship of the balloon to raise brand awareness of QinetiQ as a world-class science and technology group among its core audience of CEO-level management in the broad business community. To highlight the company's newly privatised status and associate it with a bold, daring event.
Strategy and Plan
The programme kicked off in November 2001 with a photocall in London's Leicester Square, featuring arresting images of two pilots in spacesuits running through clouds of pigeons, and emphasising that the balloon itself was seven times higher than Nelson's column.
The seven-strong QinetiQ in-house PR team was supported from launch by Karen Earl Sponsorship. Calling the balloon QinetiQ1 was an obvious way of getting the name into media coverage.
It was decided early on to create a 'hands-on' atmosphere by allowing the media access to as many of the pre-flight events - such as inflation of test balloons - as possible, focusing on the science and technology aspects of the attempt. QinetiQ media relations manager Stephen Cooke said: 'A lot of science stories happen after the event. We wanted the media to see the equipment, so it became real.'
One of the first of these media calls saw the pilots in a high-altitude chamber to simulate the conditions they would face on their record-breaking attempt. The balloon project was used to illustrate the breadth of science and technology issues on which QinetiQ could advise - from nutrition and fitness to engineering on the floating platform from which the balloon was to be launched and tracking using radar.
After the first attempt was abandoned at the end of 2002, there was a four-month break in PR activity, resuming in March this year when the Red Consultancy took over from Karen Earl. At one test, the pilots emerged from a cold chamber in their space suits to be greeted by cameras and a live feed to the BBC News at 1pm. The consumer press was targeted with profiles of the pilots, some angled to reflect their position in a line of great British explorers and adventurers. Science reporters and the technology press were given information on new equipment devised by QinetiQ for the balloon attempt. Competitions were run for schoolchildren and older students to devise experiments to be carried out on the balloon and to design a mission patch.
The BBC was allowed a film crew on the boat platform for the record attempt last month. 'This meant they could explain things from an educated point of view and we could win them as ambassadors for the project,' said Cooke.
'Therefore, even in a crisis, people wouldn't feel misinformed.'
Measurement and Evaluation
Although the QinetiQ PR team admitted a successful attempt would have generated even more coverage, 200 media representatives covered the aborted launch. The nationals, including The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, all picked up the story, with even The Sun lauding QinetiQ's scientific achievement. In addition to the BBC, the aborted launch was covered by international broadcasters CNN, ABC and NBC. A German documentary crew made a film about the project and there was online reporting in Russia, South Africa and South America. The pilots, Andy Elson and Colin Prescot, appeared on Channel 4's Richard and Judy show. Interest was also generated in the regional press, particularly in Cornwall, where the launch was to take place, and Somerset and Hampshire, where the pilots were from.
According to Millward Brown analysis commissioned by QinetiQ, its core audience's awareness of the brand was just eight per cent before last month's launch. After, it was 44 per cent. The company's website received a 3,000 per cent increase in visitor traffic prior to the aborted launch.
Daily Telegraph technology correspondent Robert Uhlig said: 'It was a slick operation. They provided a good media centre so it was well-run.
In terms of raising awareness, it's been extremely successful, even though the attempt itself failed.'
Similarly, Independent technology editor Charles Arthur was impressed with QinetiQ's handling of the media. 'I covered the Census (1901 population records) website, which crashed comprehensively, and which QinetiQ was involved in, and the contrast was interesting. (Then) they were defensive and declined to give me access to people who could have explained it. This time they were more forthcoming.'