What better way to convince a classical music radio station to debate the benefits of TCP as a sore throat treatment than to get a professional singer to gargle Nessun Dorma on-air.
As Australian singer Christa Hughes lubricated her tonsils with the product on national Classic FM, doctor Mike Smith demonstrated to more than 340,000 listeners on 16 local radio stations the health benefits of a regular sip, tip, sing and spit gargling routine.
Broadcast consultants Radio Lynx attracted nearly 90 minutes of airtime for the brand after being given the task of promoting National Gargling Week to radio on behalf of Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, the manufacturer of TCP.
Since commercial radio was launched in 1973 the sector has grown to include almost 200 stations with millions of potential consumers tuning in each week. The latest Rajar figures show commercial radio posting its highest market share to date, recording a 51.1 per cent slice of all listening compared with the BBC’s 46.8 per cent.
Yet finding ways to get editorial attention on independent stations remains a tricky marketing skill because the stations rely on paid-for brand advertising and on-air promotions for their very existence. Efforts to win coverage on the BBC, meanwhile, can be smothered by strict producer guidelines.
National Gargling Week is a perfect example of how a brand can win over journalists, presenters and producers by capturing their imagination. In another case, mobile phone company Orange persuaded a psychologist to review the results of a lifestyle survey it had conducted on the radio. The company wanted to find the perfect radio spin to promote the 1 millionth connection to the Orange network, so it asked consumers of different ages what the number 1 million meant to them and why.
This is what good public relations is all about, yet securing coverage on radio, whether national or local, requires a different approach from winning column inches in the press.
Gary Gordon, managing director of PR and radio clippings service Media Enterprises, says clients are wrong to think radio stations will be falling over themselves to mention a brand.
“Clients often need reminding that what they have to say must be informative and entertaining. If you are not careful, stations will put you straight through to the sponsorship and promotions department. The secret is to talk directly to the editors and jazz up an angle that will appeal to them,” he says.
Media Enterprises worked closely with PR company Hill & Knowlton on the Gordons Gin account with the specific brief to get the brand radio airtime. “The idea was to show the best way to serve the drink – which is not an easy thing to do on radio. We asked a master distiller who works for Gordons to sit in a London studio and talk to presenters. We supplied the stations with gin, tall glasses and ice, and you could hear the gin being opened and poured onto the ice,” he says.
Howard Kosky, managing director of radio consultants The Market Tiers, says radio is now accepted as a serious marketing medium even though many brand managers are nervous of talking to journalists. “They can be scared of the media and still feel more comfortable with paid-for radio promotions because they have control over the number of brand mentions they get.”
He has been placing stories on radio for 10 years and is currently trying to reverse the negative perception he believes many journalists have of the Millennium Commission.
Angela Salt, director of communications for the Commission and one of the spokespeople who regularly comments about its activities on radio, says the organisation has to rely on the news and feature output of national and local radio because it does not have an advertising budget.
“Yet many journalists only want to write about the Millennium if there is something bad to say or they will focus on the cost of the Millennium Dome. Market Tiers has been gradually educating broadcasters and I have appeared on local stations to talk about the various regional projects away from London that the commission is also funding,” she says.
Deciding which stations to talk to, understanding the social demographic groups they target and finding out how often they carry editorial features is time consuming. Many agencies have sophisticated media research systems that inform them of news stories breaking in different regions as well as providing official audience data that not only reveals who is listening to a particular station but also their sex, age, and how long they are tuning in for.
Linking to a headline news story of the day can be one of the most rewarding promotional opportunities, but agencies must get their timing spot on. For example, news that the Government was not allowing free eye tests for the over-60s until April 1999 gave Radio Lynx a perfect news angle for its client, retailer Dollond & Aitchison.
The story broke at the end of August and radio journalists were informed about the potential damage older people could do to their eyes if they delayed having an examination. Radio Lynx put forward Brian Keefe, professional services director and optometrist at Dollond & Aitchison, as a spokesman to talk about the risks. He took part in 12 ISDN-linked radio interviews during the five hours he spent in Radio Lynx’s London studio, while a 15-minute feature was prerecorded for use on London news station LBC’s Sunday afternoon health slot. During the interviews he managed to squeeze in several mentions that the retailer was offering free eye tests to anyone over 60.
Sally Ann Wilkinson, director of Dollond & Aitchison’s PR company Brook Wilkinson, says the coverage had a positive effect on business. “As a retailer it was easy to measure the response because we were not doing any regional advertising in the areas where the radio interviews were heard. Radio is a powerful tool to get our message across, especially to women,” she says.
Choosing the right person to appear on the radio on behalf of a brand is important, because radio stations remain sceptical about who they allow on air to talk about a piece of research or a brand instigated news item. Head of news at Classic FM, Darren Henley, says he prefers to find his own spokespeople rather than use independent experts who have been put forward by a PR agency and paid by the brand to appear.
Dirk Anthony, deputy group programme director at the GWR radio group, says he wants producers to work with companies that have interesting information for his listeners, but says brands must know the rules. “They can lead us to the water, but they cannot force us to drink it. This area is an added-value marketing tool for brands and our presenters are told to credit a company if they feel it is appropriate. The name check we give depends on the value of the story to us,” he says.
Whoever is chosen to sit behind the microphone, it is important they understand how radio works and realise that for prerecorded interviews short, easy-to-edit, sound-bites are more likely to be used than long, rambling sentences.
John Holland, vice-president of European operations for computer company AXENT Technologies, made sure he received media training before he went on radio to talk about the risk to businesses from computer hackers. “To get onto a news programme I now know that you must be prepared to be controversial. You must keep what you have to say simple and avoid jargon, especially when talking about computers. I have taught myself to speak in 30-second statements,” he says.
The news angle for AXENT was that other companies should follow its example and employ former computer hackers to help devise new security systems. “I appeared on Radio 4’s PM programme to explain the dangers. We used the analogy that working with former hackers was no different from car companies using convicted car thieves to find ways to reduce car crime. I introduced myself and said where I was from, but I did not mention specific products. If you keep to these rules you are more likely to be invited back,” he says.
Holland has still to appear on what PR companies refer to as the radio Holy Grail – Radio Four’s morning news programme Today. The BBC has strict producer guidelines covering on-air references to products and services which companies must work around if they are to get any coverage on the corporation’s national or regional stations.
The regulations state that all references to products should be editorially justifiable and there should be no element of plugging. BBC journalists must have good reason for naming a particular company or service in a news or factual report, and the guidelines stress that any reference to a trade or a brand name should be avoided. If branded products are featured then presenters must avoid giving the impression that the programme is being influenced commercially.
In a key BBC news programme, such as Today, there is always a risk that a feature will be spiked at the last minute by a late-breaking story, although there is little a presenter can do to stop a company spokesman tactfully mentioning a brand if an interview is being broadcast live.
The Market Tiers’ Kosky says BBC local stations are less strict than the networks. “We need to reassure the client that they will get a mention, however brief.
“Nationally, the least we would expect would be a throwaway mention of the brand during a discussion, while BBC local radio can be very useful if a company is targeting a promotion at a particular region,” he says.
PR agencies and their clients understand that the name of the game is not always to get as many brand mentions as possible during a three-minute radio interview. Many of the spokespeople put forward will be asked back time and again if they come across as authoritative and objective, while many of the special awareness campaigns, such as National Gargling Week, are annual and cannot afford to do anything that might stick in the throat of the nation’s radio presenters.