How lists can swing coverage your way

‘Best of’ lists are becoming ubiquitous in the UK media and can have a significant impact on the reputation of brands. Joe Lepper reports on their real PR potential

Lara Croft, the Tube map, Concorde, the classic red K2 phone box; these are not items one would instantly associate with one another.

But for the past month, these and 21 other 'icons of design' have been vying to be crowned 'Best British Design of the 20th Century' on BBC2's The Culture Show.

Such 'Best of' lists are a media favourite and, in addition to filling column inches and airtime cheaply and efficiently, they can also offer PROs a new angle on campaigns for their clients or products. But are lists always a productive medium for brands, and how can PROs use the format to generate further coverage for their clients?

In the case of The Culture Show, a long-list of 25 design icons was whittled down week by week on the programme. A final shortlist of three was announced last week– Concorde, the Spitfire and the Tube map – and the winner will be unveiled on March 16.

The historical nature of the final three means there is little scope for turning coverage into sales, but the long-list also included consumer brands such as Dr. Martens boots, the Dyson vacuum cleaner and computer game heroine Lara Croft, who made the last ten .

Adapting the campaign
The game's publisher Eidos has been quick to piggyback The Culture Show's coverage. Just five days before the 25 BBC nominees were announced, the new Lara model was revealed as part of a PR drive for the next game in the series – a tenth anniversary adventure called Tomb Raider Legend, due out in April.

According to Eidos UK PR manager Gareth Ramsay, the programme provided a new theme for the campaign – ie. that the Tomb Raider brand has a strong heritage in computer gaming. 'This poll shows the high regard in which audiences hold the character and game,' he says. 'This is central to all our activity. We have been talking to design magazines as well as games titles, letting all the relevant journalists know we reached the final ten.'

Work is still being carried out by Taylor Herring director Justin Crosby, who even drew up a PR plan in February in case Lara reach the last three. 'We had a viral campaign ready to get more people to vote for Lara,' he says. 'We are proudly challenging the view that an icon has to come from the Second World War or the 1960s.'

Similarly, Dyson UK PR manager Laura Brock says even though the firm's vacuum cleaner did not make the final shortlist, exposure on the programme provided substantial PR value. 'Being in the top 25 was a win-win situation for us,' she says. 'It is great recognition, not just from the BBC but the Design Museum, which was also involved.'

Meanwhile Dr. Marten's branding agency Exposure has secured a slot for the footwear in Selfridges' 'Pop Shop' Exhibition on the back of the coverage. Senior account manager Nina Bautista argues that the timing of the coverage was all important. 'The Culture Show came at an opportune time for us,' she says. 'Now the Dr Martens brand is on a high.'

The participatory element in such rankings gives a clue as to their popularity – viewers and readers always like to have their say.

In 2003 the BBC launched The Big Read, a search for 'the nation's favourite novel'. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials was ranked third in the poll won by JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Marion Lloyd, PR officer at Pullman's publisher Scholastic, says the promotional power of some lists can be on a par with the top literary awards.

'You can't buy the sort of publicity something such as The Big Read gives you,' explains Lloyd. 'To have an entire programme, fronted by a celebrity, devoted to your book is amazing. It brings a new audience to the book, and after The Big Read sales really
took off again.'

While television provides a ready-made audience for list shows, not all media channels are so well exposed, so it pays for PROs to keep their eyes peeled for coverage. Nancy McLardie, PR head at tourism body Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, warns that some lists can catch you unawares, especially if they are compiled abroad, and advises PROs to monitor global news sites regularly.

Influential US travel website www.frommers.com, for example, included Glasgow in its top ten list of 'up-and-coming destinations for 2006', alongside Hawaii and Goa.

'The Frommers poll came as a surprise,' admits McLardie. 'A freelance journalist called me for a comment and that was the first I had heard of it. With lists being compiled all round the world we have to make sure we are keeping tabs on them. We are stepping up our research to make sure we don't miss out.'

Of course, while lists usually provide positive coverage, PROs must also be prepared when the opposite is true. The Idler magazine's Book of Crap Towns – a whimsical look at urban degeneration in the UK – was a stockingfiller phenomenon around Christmas 2004. The 'winner' of the magazine's first survey in 2003 was Hull, while in 2004 the dubious award, voted on by more than 20,000 readers via the magazine and its website, was handed to Luton in Hertfordshire.
Lynne Hammond, a PRO at Luton Borough Council, claims that although many might see the 'accolade' as trivial, this particular list was hugely damaging at the time. 

'The media just wouldn't let go if it,' she recalls. 'We would arrange photoshoots around Luton for journalists and try to show them parks and areas of regeneration. They were impressed but the only story their editors wanted was the "crap town" one.'

But not all PR practitioners are convinced that lists are so influential. EMI director of communications Cathy Cremer downplays their value, even though a raft of its artists and products regularly feature in them.

For example, The Beatles' 1966 album Revolver took second spot in NME's latest top 100 albums of all time list.

Cremer cites market competition as a reason why she is equivocal about such features. 'If one magazine or newspaper has produced a list then others are often unlikely to give it much publicity as they may have their own list to promote. We just leave it up to them,' she admits.

Paul Davies, director at Consolidated Communications, which came 19th in last year's Sunday Times 100 Best  SMEs to Work For poll, also downplays the PR opportunities around lists.

He says: 'Being on the list is a bit like being a PRCA member – it says something about the stature of our company but we don't do any PR around it. We will mention our ranking to clients and potential clients, some of whom are also on the list, but it seems a bit crass to use the media to publicise it. The Sunday Times has already done that for us.'

Little to shout about
Problems can also arise from just scraping into a list ranking. 'There's not much point flagging up something that came 99th,' says Buena Vista Home Entertainment PR manager Lydia Rodriguez.

And while the popularity of lists appear undiminished at present, their appeal may eventually fade. Rodriguez warns that to current market saturation of lists means 'their value could be significantly eroded in the future'.

This scenario, however, could be a long way off. If media outlets are not reporting on someone else's list, they are publicising one of their own. Damien Reece, deputy City editor at The Daily Telegraph, for example, recently launched the 'Britain's Wealthiest Women Entrepreneurs' list and encourages PROs to get their clients involved.
He believes the future of the format is bright if publishers can keep their ideas fresh. 'If you try to imitate The Sunday Times Rich List, you are unlikely to do very well. That is why we are looking to come up with lists that are a bit different,' he says.

Scotland on Sunday business editor Terry Murden argues that demand will ensure supply. 'The public have always had a fascination for lists and as long as that is the case we will continue to do them,' he says.

The format, then, is here to stay, so PROs would be well advised to plan for the mighty list's impact – good or ill.

Esteem: how surveys can aid small firms
Slough-based IT firm Esteem is hardly a household name, but the firm is now a strong advocate of media lists after a raft of positive publicity from its appearance in The Sunday Times 2005 list of 100 Best SMEs to Work For.

Firms have to be nominated by its own staff, so an effective programme of internal comms was vital to their success. Esteem's in-house PR officer Ruth Joiner says: 'We couldn't influence them but we wanted to make staff aware that the poll was out there.' Thanks to staff support the firm was ranked 70th in the poll.

With assistance from its retained PR consultancy Red Kite, the result was promoted to local and trade media, achieving 23 separate items of coverage. Since then the firm has reported a rise in the number of speculative job applications and the award has been remarked upon by new clients. Esteem now hopes to repeat this success in 2006 and intends to use a similar PR campaign.

CO-OP: 'you win some, you lose some'
This January the Co-op came bottom in a Which?/BBC Watchdog survey on customer satisfaction in high-street retailers and supermarkets. Four days before the results  were aired, Co-op's group press office was contacted with the bad news.

Co-operative Group head of PR Martin Henderson said its reaction was to question the way the research was carried out, pointing out that while other supermarkets cater for customers doing their weekly shop in one visit, Co-operative stores are mostly smaller and used as a top-up. 'There is a different type of customer using the store in a different way, so the situation is not like-for-like,' he says.

Henderson was also keen to stress that the survey – conducted among 2,000 shoppers at 42 high-street retailers and supermarkets – was just one of many snap-shot assessments. Last year, for example, the Co-operative Group was ranked first in the National Consumer Council's Health Responsibility Index, which was promoted via Channel 4's Gordon Ramsay-fronted food show The F-Word.

'You win some, you lose some,' says Henderson. 'One list claims we are the most unpopular, while the next minute another praises us.'

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