CAMPAIGN: Dolly brings country glitz to Rotherham - Public sector

Recent research from development agency Yorkshire Forward shows that in Rotherham, literary levels for children at Key Stage 1 (age seven) are lower than the national average.

Campaign: Rotherham and Dolly Parton improve childhood literacy
Client: Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council
PR team: In-house
Timescale: October - December 2007
Budget: £12,000

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council has been working with local partners to change this. In October it adopted a scheme funded by country and western legend Dolly Parton known as the Imagination Library. Parton's programme aims to increase child literacy by sending children a free book every month, until the age of five.

Council leader Roger Stone persuaded the singing star to choose Rotherham as the launch pad for her project in the UK and to unveil the initiative with a personal visit.

To encourage the parents and guardians of local under-fives to sign up to the scheme. To reposition Rotherham at the forefront of a proposed European Imagination Library and publicise the borough's innovative approach to education and skills. To highlight the partnership between the council, the local Chamber of Commerce and local charities that had already pledged support.

To deliver maximum impact for the media, the in-house PR team juxtaposed the stereotypical image of industrial Rotherham, with the glamour of the Tennessee singing star.

Meanwhile, local and trade media received information about how the scheme would be funded. This included details of the star's charity, the Dollywood Foundation, providing administrative support and negotiating the cost of buying books in bulk, while the council paid for the books, postage, promotion and registration - roughly £2 per child per month. However, it was important to keep the launch under wraps until December, so all information was issued under embargo.

Media, partners, councillors and education chiefs were invited to the launch at the Magna science and education centre on a former steelworks' site in Rotherham. The star sang some of her best known hits, before sitting down to explain her involvement and answer questions from journalists.

The campaign hit a snag briefly when hacks got wind of one councillor's complaint about civic business being postponed for an hour to allow council leaders to meet the star. Generally however, this added colour to the story rather than detracting from it.

The launch attracted national coverage from titles including The Guardian, The Times Educational Supplement, the Daily Mirror, The Sun, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times and The Independent.

Broadcast interest was also widespread, ranging from The One Show and Have I Got News For You, to Channel 4 News, Sky TV, and the Politics Show.

The story appeared in local, regional and trade titles including the Burnley Express, Rotherham Advertiser, Rotherham Star, the Yorkshire Post, Manchester Evening News and the Local Government Chronicle.

The scheme has already gained more than 1,500 applications - representing almost 8.6 per cent of the local pre-school population - and the council expects a further 500 registrations by April, when the initiative kicks off.

The authority has also received a number of enquiries about the initiative from organisations including The Children's Society.

SECOND OPINION - FIONA THORNE, managing director, Fishburn Hedges
Even when you have a celebrity with the star quality of Dolly Parton, media coverage is never guaranteed. Still more challenging is delivering coverage that includes the planned key messages and stimulates people to take action, rather than just glossy celebrity snaps.

The Rotherham team's approach to generating media interest was spot on. They created an unlikely but engaging combination of a town famous for its steelwork history and a celebrity who made 'bling' her own, before anyone even knew what 'bling' was. That proved to be a winning combination.

Fiona ThorneThe messaging part of the campaign delivery was perhaps a little more mixed in its success. Dolly Parton has real personal interest in literacy, so she was able to talk about the issue with a conviction that could never have been achieved by a rent-a-quote celebrity. As a result, a good proportion of the media coverage did highlight the issue and outlined the role the new scheme was going to play in tackling this.

However, the councillor who complained about the timing of the event did manage to hog a fair amount of media attention. To some extent it is legitimate to claim that the councillor's comments did contribute to the quirkiness and therefore interest of the story. Unfortunately, given that one of the objectives was to demonstrate the partnership between the council and the organisations involved in the project, this message was somewhat undermined.

The team was right to use an embargo. It may be that if there had been an opportunity for more pre-briefing of local stakeholders, such as the councillors themselves, the objections that diverted attention from the core message could have been avoided and an even better result could have been achieved.

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