PROs under anti-youth pressure
For some PROs working with youth groups, the media appetite for negative stories is so ferocious there is no point even trying to fight the stereotypes.
'Lately, getting positive coverage of the work our clubs do has been impossible,' says Fergus Ross, director of comms at Clubs for Young People.
'Happy slapping has taken coverage to a whole new low.' The result is that the organisation's main PR effort is targeting the young people that access its clubs, not the media. Through its 'Under the hood' campaign, it aims to reassure teenagers that they are not all anti-social, lazy, good-for-nothings, as portrayed by the media.
MORI research for Haymarket Publishing's Young People Now magazine reveals the size of the problem. It found 71 per cent of youth-related articles were negative, while just eight per cent quoted young people directly; one in three was on crime.
But PROs working with youth groups should not give up, says Sandra Martin, director of the Edinburgh Youth Social Inclusion Partnership (EYSIP).
She led its Citizen Y campaign - a play written and performed by young people in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - which aims for more positive stories about young people in the media. 'Think hoodie and people think crime. This play tried to give young people a voice in a very one-sided relationship with the media,' says Martin.
The Youth Justice Board (YJB) is challenging demonisation by creating ties between 156 youth offender teams and local authority press offices to get positive stories in the local press. This includes youths taking part in community clean-ups and teenagers on court orders improving their job prospects through positive activity.
'Placing positive stories in the national media is a challenge,' says YJB director of comms Sean Larkins. 'But our chairman Rod Morgan was recently in The Observer talking about how the word "yob" is used as a catch-all for everyone under 18.'
And Young People Now editor Steve Barrett, who has been pushing for positive media reports, says there are signs of improvement. 'Media outlets are now making an effort to get a young person's story across. ASBO stories never had the young person's side, but this is changing.'
A final comfort for the afflicted comes from YWCA England & Wales media officer Carole Scott, who has picked up on the backlash in some quarters of the media against the vilification of youth. 'Take the furore over three teenage-mother sisters from Derby,' she says. 'You'd think they had murdered somebody from the language used by the tabloid media.
'Other journalists tried to balance the story by looking at what life was really like for the mums.'
The difficulty for youth groups is seizing these opportunities when they arise, and persuading young people to talk to journalists.
Experts argue that youth groups need to invest time in media training. Scott says: 'To get a more balanced view you have to get young people commenting, otherwise the current media myths will be perpetuated.'
ANTI-YOUTH AS A PR HOOK
Companies with products targeted at youth are trying to turn the negative climate to their advantage.
It is an approach that is paying off for Richard Medley, head of brand communications at GCI, which holds the Mates Condoms account. GCI has been raising awareness of the brand among 16 to 21-year-olds and has created angles, for the tabloid press particularly, around the sexual antics of the young.
One approach was a sex survey questioning 10,000 Brits abroad. Another was creating a 'Bonk Holiday' for The Sun to celebrate the second May bank holiday. 'There's no getting away from the fact that the tabloids like the sensationalist approach. We're not encouraging the culture or encouraging young people to be irresponsible. We're looking at what is happening and taking a perspective,' Medley says.
Tapping into 'rebellion' to appeal to young people is nothing new. Whether it be hoodies, punks or mods, every generation has its symbol of youth culture. The knack for brands is tapping into this in a credible way.
'The "us and them" culture between misunderstood youth and adults can be a godsend for certain brands,' says James Kelly, account director at Weber Shandwick's youth arm Sex, Love and Marketing (Slam). Kelly says product placement in videos creates strong PR hooks.
Reebok's association with the hip-hop artist 50 Cent was recently lambasted for glamorising gun crime. Nevertheless, Kelly believes this PR strategy is sound for a brand targeting young people. In some cases, it may be a bonus to enrage the mainstream market, as Slam did for Sputnik Vodka.
It promoted a competition to win a spoof kidnap experience, targeting Hoxton, London. Participants applied to be 'kidnapped', detailing where they would be on certain dates. Kelly says Slam got the idea from a New York trendspotter who suggested 'orgies are passe and kidnaps are in'.
This campaign fully intended to provoke disgust, which it did, garnering several scathing write-ups in newspapers. But the theory was that this negative coverage would elevate the vodka brand in trendsetters' eyes.
For more corporate brands this strategy is not feasible. Mike Mathieson, managing director of youth agency Cake Media, does not advise such an edgy stance.
Cake handles PR for Orange, the V Festival and Carling, and Mathieson believes the best way to talk to this market is straight.
'What we're trying to say to young people in our PR for Carling is "You know we want to sell you more beer but we want to do it in a way that entertains you".' The worst thing brands can do, believes Mathieson, is associate too closely with a stereotypical image meant to define youth cool. 'It's really dangerous to position a brand as "down with the kids" and talking their language,' he says. 'They can see through that. They know when they're being sold to and they don't like it. That kind of PR strategy is bound to backfire.'
DEFENDING YOUTH: YWCA
Campaign: Respect Young Mums
Date: September 2004-March 2005
Team: The Forster Company
YWCA wanted a PR campaign that would challenge media stereotypes of teenage mums being irresponsible state scroungers. Media officer Carole Scott set up a dedicated microsite and trained selected teenagers in media techniques so good case studies could be made available quickly.
Her team also interviewed this group and wrote up individual case studies, which could be sent out to journalists, and had professional photographs taken of all participants. Interviewees were also presented with journalists' questions in advance. The campaign kicked off with a cover story that had been planned for months in The Guardian's Society section, telling young mums' stories. This was followed by coverage from 321 outlets including TV Quick, New Woman, Radio 1, Sky News, GMTV and Radio Five Live.
However, YWCA struggled to get coverage in the tabloids. Scott speculates the case studies were too positive and the tabloids did not want to be seen to be endorsing teenage pregnancy.
SPEAKING YOUNG PEOPLE'S LANGUAGE: OXFAM
Campaign: Volunteering Week
Date: September 2004-March 2005
Team: Banc Communications
Oxfam managed to use the anti-youth media climate as the hook for a campaign around Volunteering Week. PR aimed to position Oxfam as a charity that welcomes young volunteers from all backgrounds and does not judge them by negative, media-fuelled images.
Banc Communications carried out a survey of more than 300 young people about their attitudes towards charities and volunteering. Results revealed statistics such as '60 per cent would give up watching Big Brother to accommodate volunteering' and '89 per cent of teenagers are willing to make sacrifices in the name of charity'. It used the results for a press release headlined 'Oxfam survey points to the end of the chav'. It quoted a 24-year-old volunteer who said: 'Young people aren't all apathetic, hoodie-wearing yobs.' Oxfam volunteering manager Carolyn Myers said: 'Teens have a bad image - they are pigeonholed as materialist, yobbish and celebrity obsessed.' The story was picked up by the Daily Express, The Sun, Radio Five Live and local media.