MEDIA RELATIONS: PR tool or cynical ploy?

The awareness day, week or month has long been a standard weapon in the PR professional's armoury. But with so many clamouring for attention, there are pitfalls to avoid, explains Mary Cowlett.

Designers Tracey Boyd and Lulu Guinness
Designers Tracey Boyd and Lulu Guinness

Whether it is in support of a cause, organisation or product, the calendar is currently chock-a-block with awareness days, weeks and months.

And they come in all shapes and sizes, from stalwarts such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Red Nose Day, to the more obscure Be Nice To Nettles

Week and the faintly ridiculous Nat­ional Sie­sta Day. That's not counting internet-driven events, such as International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

According to forward planning ser­vice Year Ahead, which maintains an awareness campaigns register, there are currently 578 such annual events in the UK and the numbers are still rising.

‘We add up to 20 to 25 awareness campaigns every week, but many of these are principally promotional platforms for products,' says Year Ahead deputy editor Joanne Garwood. Such campaigns, which account for around 25 per cent of events, include Andrex's Nat­ional Softie Week.

For those looking to instigate a new event, Garwood recommends getting in touch to find a suitable slot. May and October are currently the most congested months. Her organisation can also help avoid potential clashes such as National Vegetarian Week fighting for coverage at the same time as, say, ‘let's celebrate veal day'.

Registering an awareness event, however, is not the beginning. ‘The first thing to consider is whether, with the astonishing amount of competition, your campaign is going to work in terms of your overall comms strategy,' warns Bill McIntyre, director of Iris PR.

Having set up two new awareness events in the past 18 months, he adds: ‘It's also important to ensure you have a compelling story and are able to create equally compelling content for the media.'

In order to establish Internet Watch Foundation Day, McIntyre's firm used trend data and gained the support of 25 IWF members, including AOL, the BBC, Google and Yahoo.
Alan Twigg, managing partner at Seventy Seven PR, recommends newcomers secure the backing of key ind­ustry bodies and trade titles.

Currently involved with National Independents Week, which celebrates local independent shopkeepers, Twigg also cautions brand partners to keep a low profile. ‘As soon as you add a commercial name to a week or a day, you risk the media's cynicism kicking in.

I would seriously consider not having your brand name anywhere near the campaign title, but use it more in a supportive sense,' he suggests.

For more established campaigns, there is the question of how to bring a fresh angle to the cause each year. In March, No Smoking Day celebrated its 25th anniversary on an annual PR budget of £15,000. Campaign manager Vishnee Sauntoo says: ‘Each year we use a different theme, so last year we focused on supporting people in adv­ance of the smoking ban.

This year, we organised "The Great No Smoking Day Challenge", where people could get together and give up smoking with their friends, while raising money for charity.' She adds: ‘We also tested our images with a series of focus groups to ensure they were new and striking.'

No Smoking Day: this year's event was marked with a Red Arrows display at RAF Scampton in LincolnBut with more dedicated events than dates in the calendar, there are serious issues around awareness ‘fatigue'.

Kim Edwards, press officer at Cancer Research UK, which ran an All Join Together campaign for Breast Cancer Awareness Month last October, says one solution is to take an integrated and creative approach. ‘We found that most publications wanted to cover Breast Cancer Awareness Month in some way, but demanded a different angle, exclusive to them.'

This preference was met using a new piece of research showing how lifestyle changes could prevent thousands of breast cancer cases in the future, plus case studies of two breast cancer survivors, who were bodypainted in Lulu Guinness and Tracey Boyd designs for a photoshoot (see picture, p26).

Journalists admit that the number and nature of awareness campaigns is becoming tiresome. ‘There does seem to be more than ever and some of them are ridiculous,' says Caroline Nodder, editor of The Publican, which runs its own Proud of Pubs Week. ‘But pubs have been having a difficult time rec­ently, so if British Sausage Week or National Chip Week encourages people to go into pubs, then obviously we have to support them.'

Others, however, suspect that themed days and weeks have become a lazy PR tactic. ‘National Tissue Day? Excuse me!' says Juliet Philip, account manager at technology specialist EML. ‘I'm not knocking "days" or "weeks" completely, but I would hate to think that a charity or something important such as World Book Day was losing out to national brioche or peppermint tea week. It's getting over the top - let's think of something else, please.'

When 28 May to 3 June 2007
PR team National BBQ Association and Storm Communications

Last year marked the 11th National BBQ Week and the first to be undertaken by Storm Communications.

Designed to communicate the ongoing evolution of BBQ-ing, from burnt bangers and charcoaled chicken to more sophisticated outdoor dining, the week was supported by sponsors or ‘Barbi-Partners'. These included Birds Eye, Brahma beer and Carte D'Or.

Activities also focused on generating coverage to position the National BBQ Association as the authority in the industry.

The campaign posed a number of challenges, not least that last summer was one of the soggiest for more than 250 years. ‘Trying to promote BBQs, which traditionally go hand-in-hand with good weather, was difficult,' says Storm senior account director, Elinor Tyler.

To generate maximum exposure, the PR team worked with all the sponsors to compile a database of recipes using their products as ingredients. Features desks were also approached with BBQ-ing ideas, gadgets and stories.

To target broadcast media, a ‘BarbiBus' - fully kitted out with BBQ equipment - toured key London and national radio stations at the start of the week. Storm also arranged for the vehicle to visit the main trade food service and retail magazine publishers and cater for the editorial teams.

To help generate brand cut-through, competitions were set up with trade titles, giving away ‘BarbiBoxes' of sponsors' products.

The campaign scored 136 pieces of coverage, with highlights including a double-page spread in the Sunday Star, a BBQ feature and interview on BBC Two's Ready Steady Cook and a three-page recipe feature in Hello!

When 12 to 16 November 2007
PR team Get Safe Online and Edelman

Launched in 2005, Get Safe Online is a joint initiative between the Government, Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and private sponsors including eBay, HSBC and Microsoft.
Its core focus is to help consumers and small businesses protect themselves against internet security risks, primarily through its website

‘The awareness week is not just about securing media coverage. It's just as important for the organisation to go out to the regions and physically engage the public,' says account director Reena Mistry.

Last year, the campaign focused on explaining to the public how online theft works. Edelman used Mr X, an active but anonymous SOCA ‘white hat' - the industry term for someone who uses their hacking skills for legitimate purposes.

He demonstrated how online criminals could steal information through unsecured wireless networks. This was set up a week in advance to allow broadcasters including the BBC, Five News and Sky to hit the ground running on the Monday morning.

This was supported by a Get Safe Online Summit organised at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

To maintain momentum, Edelman organised a three-day roadshow to six UK cities, running free drop-in workshops.

‘One of the biggest challenges was re-engaging the media in online safety as it's now so talked about,' says Mistry.

But the week was the organisation's most successful to date, securing more than 400 pieces of coverage and driving more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

When 12 to 18 November 2007
PR team Make Your Mark/Colman Getty

Aimed at inspiring young people, Enterprise Week marked its fourth anniversary with 5,270 events organised by 1,922 partners across business, charities and education bodies. These included development agencies, local Business Links and The British Library.

Run by the Make Your Mark campaign, the week attracted support from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and was endorsed by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Nationally, the PR team kicked off the week with a Policy Conference and a Make Your Mark Challenge, a competition for schools, colleges and universities to come up with ethically motivated money-making ideas. Other activities included an online social enterprise competition where children could view one another's pitches and vote for their favourite on Bebo.

The PR team secured high-profile entrepreneurs including Dragon's Den‘s Peter Jones, Yo! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe and The Apprentice winner Tim Campbell to act as ambassadors.
Fortnum & Mason boss Beverley Aspinall also hosted a high tea event to celebrate Women's Enterprise Day.

The campaign generated more than 1,300 pieces of coverage from outlets including The Daily Telegraph, and Richard Bacon's show on BBC Radio 5 Live.

‘It is a real challenge to keep upping our impact year on year,' says Amy MacLaren, who heads up the Make Your Mark account at Colman Getty. But Gordon Brown and Carl Schramm, president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in the US, recently announced that this year's event will launch the first global enterprise week.

When 13 to 20 September 2008
PR team National Eczema Society and Approach PR

Bradford-based Approach PR has managed National Eczema Week on behalf of the National Eczema Society since 2001.

‘It's our one opportunity to work proactively for the society during an otherwise reactive year managing its press office,' explains MD Suzanne Johns. The PR team uses the week to communicate the society's key messages and redress the imbalance of press scare stories about allergies, eczema and new treatments.

Each week has had a theme to create a news hook, backed by fundraising ideas, case studies and occasionally celebrities. Last year's tag line was ‘The X-czema Factor', while this year's ‘Hold a Hand for Eczema' targets teachers and parents with the society's new Schools Pack.

‘We have only ever worked directly with two celebrities [Karen Eubank and Fiona Phillips] who have experience of eczema and while they helped secure some news items, the week runs just as well without, because our real-life case studies are very powerful,' says Johns.

In addition, the week is always supported by eczema fact sheets and consultant dermatologists commenting on the lesser known elements of the skin condition, such as its psychological impact.
Each year, Approach itself gets involved. ‘We've cycled, been wrapped in bandages and held coffee mornings,' laughs Johns.

The week consistently secures coverage for the society on daytime news and lifestyle shows, in the tabloids and women's, parenting and healthcare professional press and relevant websites. The agency calculates that its audience reach figures never drop below 20 million.

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