The innovation revolution

As PR leaders increasingly have to do more with less, a new era of creativity is emerging, reveals Mary-Louise Clews. Corporate teams are turning day-to-day company life into headlines and exploiting social media like never before.


The mood among PR leaders about prospects for growth and financial investment in their departments is overwhelmingly pessimistic, according to an in-house economic barometer by the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA).

More than 80% of respondents say they expect to be forced to work within shrinking or static budgets this year as brands across many sectors deal with the continued impact of dampened consumer confidence, according to a survey of PRCA members focusing on the first quarter of 2012.

Additionally, with marketing spend also being cut, in-house PR teams are under greater pressure from boards to reach wider communications objectives.

More than half (53%) say they expect their biggest challenge will be increased responsibility over the course of the year.

However, the woes of in-house PRs are in sharp contrast to the optimistic outlook of consultancies, which broadly report growth in client budgets. Despite this, well over a third of in-house teams (39%) say support from PR agencies will need to be reduced, with just under half (49%) saying they will be working with the same level of support. Only 12% say they expect to be able to increase their investment in agency support.

Such conditions require a greater level of innovation from PR teams, and there are signs that pressure on spend is fuelling a surge in resourcefulness and creativity. Kaa Holmes, head of media relations at French energy business EDF, has been looking at how his team can use the company’s physical assets – eight nuclear power stations – alongside human resources, to promote transparency and humanise a company operating in a sector that has in the past been seen as remote and anti-social.

His team has won a clutch of awards over the past year for finding ways to ensure its consistent messaging is heard in positive press coverage. This is at a time when energy price rises and traditional scepticism about nuclear power has led to some of its competitors struggling to do the same. Two-thirds of the editorial coverage of the energy company’s 2011 Team Green Britain campaign – aimed at encouraging consumers to save more energy – was EDF ‘branded’.

Holmes says that despite working for a brand that is both sponsoring the London 2012 Olympics, and which recently unveiled a campaign with heavy above-the-line broadcast investment to highlight EDF’s status as ‘official power supplier’ to the games, his team is under pressure to deliver more for less as energy prices are hiked.

“We all have to live within our means – the current economic climate has taught us that. As an energy company we do feel a particular responsibility to our customers, and that means we are wary of wasting pennies,” he says.

Holmes says his approach has evolved to using EDF’s assets to bring the company to life for journalists and the wider public. “We opened up all our power stations to journalists immediately following [the disaster at] Fukushima [nuclear plant in Japan]. This delivered a massive amount of coverage that brought a level of credibility that we wouldn’t have achieved via advertising, and it was far less costly,” he says.

He adds that the move also reflects a “genuine desire” across EDF to foster a “broader transparency” to the outside world.

EDF Hinkley
Clever reaction: EDF immediately opened its power stations to journalists following the Fukushima disaster in Japan

Holmes also points to a national newspaper profile of one of its young reactor engineers. The ‘day-in-the-life’ article, covering their work behind the scenes, is an example of a low-cost but effective way of changing the way the company is perceived.

Corporate PR teams are often in the challenging position of having to create the ‘mood music’ for a brand’s strategic aims but without the level of investment that would be traditionally invested in a new tangible product or event launch. Such teams often have to be more innovative, developing an eye for transforming day-to-day company life into headline gold.

Faced with the difficult task of bringing the issue of sustainability to unengaged consumers and sceptical opinion-formers, fast-moving consumer goods business Unilever spotted an opportunity last year to turn some research and development department data on showering habits into a first step towards consumer behaviour change. The UK team were supporting the global company’s Sustainable Living Plan, which called for action to reduce the company’s carbon footprint at the same time as delivering growth targets for its products.

The resulting Shower Power campaign took aim at the 68% portion of the company’s footprint represented by the way consumers choose to use its products, while avoiding the risk of customers using less shower gel or shampoo, for example. It used a relatively small budget but, with agency support, exceeded expected targets, launching just six weeks after conception.

The project, which was shortlisted for a Marketing Week Engage award this year, in part encouraged the publication and promotion of Unilever’s Five Levers of Change corporate booklet, setting out how companies can lead consumers into adopting greener behaviour.

Such large corporates might have to tighten their belts, but there is no doubt they still have the kind of budgets small charities can only dream about, and this is where the explosion in free, direct and popular social networking tools really comes into its own.

Whizz-Kidz, which promotes fun lives and independent futures for disabled children and young people, is one charity taking advantage. Its PR manager, Rob Dyson, says organisations like Whizz-Kidz have always had to be adept at squeezing as much value out of each opportunity as possible, and believes the tools have energised parts of the sector.

“Networks such as Twitter and Facebook and embracing tools like Audioboo have been great for us as our users and ambassadors are young people who really engage with this stuff,” says Dyson.

“The proliferation of user-generated-content online has created an appetite for guerilla campaigns and content. It means charities like Whizz-Kidz don’t have to use incredibly high-production value videos or expensive advertising – and it has allowed us to employ the techniques of online marketing almost in lieu of a PR budget,” he adds.

The charity has used this approach to punch well above its weight. One of the most impressive examples is its use of podcast free tool Audioboo to equip young ambassadors to capture interviews with well-known politicians such as Ken Livingstone and Andrew Lansley, and journalists such as Jeremy Paxman and Andrew Marr at the 2011 party conferences.

A move which was designed to be a bit of fun and create engagement with young people with disabilities and political influencers, ended up leading to media coverage in a national newspaper and political magazine, plus plenty of sharing among opinion formers on Twitter and fans of the charity on Facebook. It also netted the charity a public affairs innovation award.

Dyson, who is also on the board of third sector networking organisation CharityComms, also stresses that successful charities learn to make the most of every opportunity.

He explains that charities traditionally squeeze PR budgets as donors quite rightly want to see their money spent on tangible goods and services, such as a wheelchair for a disabled child, not vague ‘back-office’ functions such as PR.

The way charities work with corporate partners is innovating beyond “just financial asks”, explains Dyson. “Non-profits must ask themselves how their partners might add value to their work – from pro bono PR support, to covering printing costs and event marketing materials,” says Dyson.

An innovative approach led to then Tesco chairman Sir David Reid taking on the same role on the Whizz-Kidz trustees’ board, following the supermarket’s adoption of the organisation as its charity of the year in 2006. Whizz-Kidz also negotiates deals such as work placements for the children it helps at Molson Coors, as part of the beer brand’s corporate sponsorship of the charity in 2011-2012.

With a continuing murky economic outlook, in-house teams are unclear if their budget fortunes will improve over the year. However, with most feeling secure in their job security at least (70% of respondents to the PRCA survey say they feel staff numbers will remain static), the opportunities allowing teams to do more for less are being identified and will be increasingly grasped.

Key Stats

Case study: NHS

NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) partnered with the recently closed COI last summer to create a multi-award-winning campaign aimed at stemming the loss of blood donors, particularly among young people.

The resulting celebrity-supported Blood Week inspired almost 100,000 people to ‘make a date to donate’, a 79% jump in registrations compared with the same period in 2010.

High take-up: Almost 100,000 people ‘made a date to donate’ during NHSBT’s Blood Week

The campaign’s use of celebrities such as pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor and former gold-medal winning ice-skater Jane Torvill also helped to deliver double the number of first-time donors it aimed to achieve.

Even better, half of the 20,000 first-time donors to sign up during the 2011 launch campaign were aged between 17 and 30, and 59% more appointments were made by 17 to 29-year-olds in 2011 than during the equivalent period last year.

The campaign was created by the NHSBT in-house media team, based around the existing World Blood Donor Day on 14 June, and rolled out by the COI. The PR team used the vast NHSBT database to generate headlines for the campaign, including the fact that there had been a 20% drop in the number of young donors in the previous year.

It also relied on its extensive network of donors who have volunteered their stories and time to talk to the media about their experience of giving blood.

The campaign was part of NHSBT’s “managed annual programme to replace the 230,000 donors a year who can no longer donate”.

The organisation has to continue to deliver on such objectives under a government that is seeking to ensure all publicly funded-organisations are as lean as possible under its pledge to reduce the UK’s deficit.

The organisation’s PR team is therefore, like many others, feeling the pressure to do more with less. It said in its recent strategic plan for 2012-2017 that it would have to find a further 3% reduction in its operational costs to avoid the price of blood to its NHS customers rising.

It also said it was seeking ongoing approval from central government for “publicity campaigns that are essential to bringing blood donors into NHSBT in advance of winter flu, holidays and events such as the Olympics”.

This year’s Blood Week campaign and associated activity will be handled by The Red Agency, which won the brief following the closure of the COI.

NHSBT communications director Leonie Austin said/ “NHSBT is using PR and working with celebrities to leverage coverage to ensure we have sufficient blood supplies during a busy summer. We are also maximising use of social media to further support public campaigns and find efficiencies.”

“At all times we are making the best use of limited resources and ensuring costs are kept to the minimum necessary to deliver the 7,000 units a day needed to save and improve lives.”

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