If I were to attempt to sum up public relations in one sentence, my explanation would be something like: sharing news and information to build a good relationship between X client and the public. Which basically means spending a lot of time attempting to encourage other people to share news and information. It’s fun but – as anyone who has ever attempted to make their own Twitter account ‘go viral’ will know – it’s almost impossible to know what will capture the public imagination and be a runaway publicity success.
I say almost impossible because every now and then there comes along a golden opportunity when you know that even the most minimal of effort will draw so much attention you won’t know what to do with it. Sometimes you get a bit of notice about these things, allowing you to plan, arrange interviews and take your time to enjoy the event unfolding in front of you, other times can be a little more hectic, with Channel 5, the local media, Sky, ITN, and more all announcing they’re about to turn up.
When the Rochester Bridge Trust said they were planning a bridge-themed adventure golf course inside Rochester Cathedral my first thought was ‘wow’. The vision for introducing young people to civil engineering, combined with a free summer holiday activity for the community inside a stunning building that can never have too many visitors was incredible.
We were realistic, the activity and the setting meant there was bound to be a little controversy, but the reasoning and the message were sound, both parties were united in their goal, all we had to do was spread the word.
A press release was drafted, the website updated and a couple of posts were written for Twitter and Facebook. It got a bit of interest, a national paper with a reputation for that sort of thing wrote a grumbling article and a few photoshopped pictures appeared, but it’s hard to visualise a nave filled with golf unless you’ve actually seen it.
The important thing was that we were sharing the message with the community, the people the activity was designed for.
The adventure golf was installed on a Friday, with the official opening three days later, to give time to iron out any snags, check everything fitted together and generally make sure the course offered the fun, educational experience that had been visualised.
All went well in the installation, so a few more simple tweets were shared, encouraging people to visit at the weekend.
Saturday morning arrived and the course was packed. A buzz of happy families filled the nave and it was already clear to see the reality was even better than had been hoped.
Sunday arrived and in the morning the course was closed – this is a working cathedral after all – but at opening time families again appeared, some staying after the service, others visiting the building for their very first time. Sunday was also the day Twitter exploded, with notifications coming through so fast that phones lost the ability to buzz.
I’m never quite sure if the phrase ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ is accurate or not, but in this case negative social media comments from far away definitely helped to generate a positive reaction nearby. It also helped catch the attention of the media.
It’s never good to assume, but in my mind national attention for the bridges adventure golf had always been inevitable. I admit, my expectation had been of a gradual trickle as the local media covered the story and it gradually got picked up on a wider scale, but the story was so unusual how could it not gain interest?
Social media simply accelerated things so Monday arrived and a local news channel was asking to visit that day, with another making arrangements for Tuesday. Then Tuesday arrived and before 9.30am three national news channels, two regional news channels and the local press all wanted to visit.
Getting the attention had been easy. Managing the attention and keeping the media – and more importantly client and their visitors – happy was where the challenge came in.
The media are not stupid. If one outlet is interested in a story, they know there’s a good likelihood one of their competitors will be too. That said, unless the event is an organised one-off at a certain time, it’s a bit rude – and impractical – to arrange for a number of different outlets to turn up at the same time.
Working with my opposite number in Rochester Cathedral, time slots were negotiated for each media outlet. Spokespeople for both the Trust and the Cathedral had already been given general briefings, but updates had to be provided to prepare them for the requirements of the individual journalists. Timings also had to fit around prior engagements, with a back-up representative drafted in as needed.
Finally, those spokespeople still had jobs to do. They needed a clear schedule of where they were needed and when, and to be kept updated as the day progressed and timings inevitably changed – or were added to when three radio stations called.
On top of this, each media crew had to be politely minded or supported: with practical help and answers to any questions; to be kept out of each others’ way when one or another crew turned up significantly earlier than agreed or hung around longer than anticipated (in one case almost four hours); and most importantly of all, kept away from any visitors who did not wish to be filmed or photographed. The media attention was great for spreading the word, but it was of the utmost importance that the visitors’ experience was not in any way impaired as a result.
That one day of interviews and filming generated more media coverage than it’s been possible to round up. A selection of links includes the Guardian, Sky, BBC, ITN, Huffington Post, Newsround, but the adventure golf was also reportedly mentioned on the likes of Classic FM, Loose Women, Radio 4, and Afternoon Live with Simon McCoy, not to mention countless more articles, photographs and films from the local media and from syndicated recordings.
Coverage includes an inevitable mix of good or bad comments, but the overwhelming majority are positive and the proof is in attendance: when it’s open the course is packed, joy and laughter can be heard echoing from the front entrance of the cathedral, and parents are already reporting that their children have been bridge building at home.
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