FEATURE: A worthy alliance

The Children in Need appeal last month was one of the UK's biggest fundraising events. Kate Magee joined Trimedia and the cast of EastEnders behind the scenes.

FEATURE: A worthy alliance

Three weeks ago, BBC Children In Need yet again smashed the record for the number of donations received, pulling in a hefty £19m. But underneath a surface filled with Terry Wogan, a yellow eye-patch-wearing teddy and celebrity performances, PR agency Trimedia Harrison Cowley was working hard to maximise media opportunities for its client, BT.

BT has supported the event since the first telethon in 1980, providing telephones, network management, call centres, volunteers and online support to enable people to make donations on the telethon night.

Trimedia, BT’s retained agency for CSR, takes up to eight months to prepare for each telethon. Fundraising stories are released from the end of September, the event is promoted to BT’s network of 104,000 employees, and letters to newsdesks are sent out two weeks before the event. The agency also manages the live broadcast from the BT Tower on the telethon night, as well as providing the media with the call statistics and donation totals.

On the night of the telethon, PRWeek’s voluntary sector correspondent Kate Magee (seated below) joined Trimedia’s divisional director Justin McKeown and watched the night unfold…

4.03pm McKeown and PRWeek arrive at the BT Tower in central London and head through the airport-style security gate. McKeown checks the branding in the filming area. ‘We make sure that the BT logo is never bigger than Children in Need’s,’ he explains. ‘This is a partnership, not a sponsorship.’

5.15pm The first run through of the script begins with BBC presenter Angellica Bell, the floor manager and the producer. The script has already been agreed with all parties, but McKeown checks that any mention of BT is not accidentally cut or incorrectly changed.

5.30pm A call from the EastEnders production team. Eleven members of the cast want to be part of the live broadcast from the BT Tower. This is unexpected. Normally only one or two celebrities take the phone calls, with the maximum in the past being the four members of Take That. The script needs to be re-jigged and the filmed area expanded, causing problems for BT because now there is only room for one BT volunteer. McKeown negotiates for the BT volunteer to sit at the front and read out the donation line number.

5.45pm McKeown zooms 34 floors down in the lift to the Maple Suite control room to find a BT volunteer, ‘someone who won’t choke when the camera is on them, and who will read the number out in the time they are given’, he says. With a strict timing of only two minutes, everything has to run to schedule in the broadcast. BT employee Pete Coles fits the bill.

6.45pm Back in the lift, this time to the 33rd floor for the celebrity briefing. The EastEnders cast are told to answer calls if their phone rings to make sure lines are not disrupted. Then the whole party, with Pudsey the bear in tow, takes the stairs to the 34th floor.

7.00pm Lift off. The telethon begins at the BBC TV Centre. McKeown checks the BT branding is still visible and makes sure BT volunteer Pete Coles knows what he has to do. After a bit of cajoling, the celebrities don a special T-shirt decorated with the BT and Children in Need logo.

7.39pm As the celebrities leave to make their way to the BBC TV Centre and the displaced BT volunteers ret­urn, McKeown extols the benefit of BT’s ownership of the iconic tower. ‘When the show crosses live to the BT Tower, or whenever the tower is mentioned, it automatically promotes BT’s involvement in the night,’ he says. And, if you do not suffer from vertigo, it is a great view.

8.25pm McKeown studies the draft press releases. When the show ends at 2am he will need to send these out to the waiting hacks. ‘These releases have to hit the relevant journalists’ desk first thing on Saturday morning,’ he explains. ‘Most media will report on the event totals on Saturday and Sunday, a few stragglers on Monday and then everyone moves on.’

10.17pm Another high-speed descent to the Maple Suite control room to check figures from the various call centres around the country. These are compared with the programming schedule, showing which act has produced the largest number of calls. The Dragons’ Den plea has produced the largest spike in call numbers, and the information is fed back to BBC TV Centre and woven in to the live programming before the plea is repeated.

2am The show ends. McKeown waits for the final figures and statistics to be added up. ‘Facts and figures give us a way of slipping in BT mentions in a more natural way,’ he explains.

3am Children in Need has set a new appeal night fundraising record of £19,089,771. Press releases are dispatched to the wires, nationals, major broadcasters, Ceefax and News 24. Regional figures are extracted and sent out to local press.

4.30am All press releases have been sent. PRWeek stumbles home bleary-eyed. McKeown beds down under a desk for a couple of hours’ shut-eye before the morning’s press enquiries start to roll in…


Beth Courtier, BT’s head of charity programmes, says: ‘We always make sure our charity partnerships are aligned to our company’s purpose. It makes sense for BT, a comms company, to support comms events such as telethons, or to campaign for greater access to aid, which we are currently doing with Scope. The public should understand immediately why you are associated with a particular charity or event. If they don’t see the connection, they might think it is purely a publicity exercise, which can have a negative impact.’

A good internal comms programme is crucial, adds Courtier. BT has 104,000 employees, and puts as much effort into communicating with them as it does with the general public.

Justin McKeown (l) adds another top tip: ‘Broad­casters are turned off by PROs that just want a free advert,’ he says. ‘While branding and references are absolutely essential to justify the corporate partner’s investment, we want to avoid anything that would be incongruous with the programme. Working with the production teams in advance helps ensure that the recognition fits naturally.

‘Understanding broadcast terminology is important. If you get that wrong, it is like mispronouncing someone’s name and identifies you as an outsider. The media are much more likely to listen to you if you understand their language, needs and restrictions.’


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