Reflections on a lifetime in campaigning, public affairs – and changing the world

It’s not often someone can lay claim to have played a role, in no small part, in changing the world – and to a life whose record can provide such a rich set of reflections from which students of PR, communications and public affairs can learn so much – but Des Wilson is such a person.

Campaigner (with thanks to http://www.performingartistes.co.uk/artistes/345/des-wilson.htm)

Campaigning legend Des Wilson

I remember hearing from him at my first ever major political public meeting in 1988.  It was in the illustrious setting of the Farnborough Community Centre (almost as glamourous as the setting for my first music gig in 1978 – that was Blackbushe Airport, but it was Bob Dylan, both local venues to my parents, but I digress).  Des was taking part in the hustings for the first presidential contest of the then Social and Liberal Democrats, alongside the leadership contest between Paddy Ashdown and Alan Beith.

Farnborough Community Centre

Farnborough Community Centre

As ever, I didn’t back a winner.  Despite having previously been the Liberal Party’s president, he didn’t win that contest (the party seemed to think that if we had an ex-Liberal leader, we had to have an ex-SDP president) – but it didn’t matter.  By 1992, Des returned to a role much better suited to him, running Paddy Ashdown’s much lauded General Election campaign, for which he won a PR Week award for outstanding individual of that year.

It is one of the reasons I am personally so excited that the PR Fraternity, in conjunction with the University of Greenwich Big Picture series have secured Des Wilson to speak on campus this week over 25 years later.  In fact, I was dumb-founded when I heard that he had accepted our invitation – such a major player, such a shifter of opinions.  He’ll be reflecting on the lessons of decades of campaigning and public affairs experience – but I’m sure he’ll have something to say too about the current campaigning tactics of the Liberal Democrats since he (and I) long vacated that particular pitch.

Des will be speaking at the University of Greenwich on Wednesday 12th March, from 5.00-7.00pm.  If you want to join us, register for a place/ticket here:

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

In case you need reminding, or were born too late to know, Des helped set up the pioneering homelessness charity, Shelter, becoming its launch director.

In 1983, he became chairman of Friends of the Earth.  Also during that decade, he took a lead role in the campaign that led to Freedom of Information legislation, and launched the Clear campaign that successfully removed lead from petrol.

On the back of his work for the Liberal Democrats, Des became director of public affairs for Burson-Marsteller, and subsequently, director of corporate and public affairs for BAA from 1994-2000.

Throughout that fifty year career, Des also had a career in journalism, numerous other positions in public affairs and campaigning, and served on numerous boards in the public sector, such as the British Tourist Authority, and Sport England.

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Des is the latest in the series of high profile guest speakers secured by the University of Greenwich’s student-run PR Fraternity this year, whose members include the students of the BA (Hons) Public Relations & Communications, and the MA Public Relations.

Having recently welcomed Mark Borkowski; Megan Carver (who shared her wealth of experience with The Outside Organisation, and within the music industry); and Andy Parfitt – the remaining two speakers after Des will be MD of PR Squared, television and celebrity publicist Polly Ravenscroft, and head of PR for Sky One, Tessa Matchett.

Guest Speaker series: PR @ University of Greenwich

With Frances being crowned the winner of the BBC’s ‘Great British Bake Off’ 2013 over Kimberley and Ruby this week, the University of Greenwich PR Fraternity is delighted to kick-off its guest speaker series for this academic year with the winner of the previous series, John Whaite.

John Whaite drops in on Nick Grimshaw's BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show

John Whaite drops in on Nick Grimshaw’s BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show

As well as discussing his experiences on the series and his views on how this one went, John will be discussing what it was like managing the media attention that the victory brought in its wake, and the consumer PR for his subsequent cookery book  and Greenwich-based cookery classes.

John Whaite makes the cover of Attitude magazine

John Whaite makes the cover of Attitude magazine

Immediately afterwards, John will be judging the audience’s attempts to bake, so if want to join us, bring along your buns, cup-cakes – even pretzels – for a cake-fight to the finish.  So please join us – Wednesday 30th October at 12.00pm to hear John Whaite in conversation, and for a bit of a network over a taste test afterwards.  Email me for venue details – p.a.simpson@greenwich.ac.uk .

Our PR Fraternity 2013-14 PR Speaker series to date is:-

John Whaite speaks as well as bakes!

John Whaite speaks as well as bakes!

Wednesday 30th October:   John Waite; Winner, BBC Great British Bake Off, 2012.

Greenwich graduate Igrid Asoni returns from Marrakech to discuss her PR experiences

Greenwich graduate Igrid Asoni returns from Marrakech to discuss her PR experiences

Tuesday 5th November:  Ingrid Asoni; founder, Asoni Haus lifestyle management, event design and PR management company with a focus on London and Marrakech.

Simon Long welcomes Nicki Minaj to Kiss FM's Central London studios

Simon Long welcomes Nicki Minaj to Kiss FM’s Central London studios

Friday 29th November:  Simon Long; Deputy Programme Director, Kiss FM.

After a pivotal role at the BBC, Andy Parfitt now advises Saatchi & Saatchi on talent issues

After a pivotal role at the BBC, Andy Parfitt now advises Saatchi & Saatchi on talent issues

Wednesday 12th February:  Andy Parfitt; Executive Director (Talent), Saatchi & Saatchi; Chair of UK charity, Youth Music; Former Controller, BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra. Held in conjunction with the university’s Big Picture lecture series.

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

Wednesday 12th March:  Des Wilson; campaigning legend: Launch Director, homelessness charity, Shelter; Director of Public Affairs, Royal Shakespeare Company; led campaign against lead in petrol at Clear; Chaired Friends of the Earth; pioneering campaigner for freedom of information; President of the Liberal Party; leading role in campaign for Sunday trading; ran Paddy Ashdown’s General Election campaign in 1992; consultant with Burson Marstellar; Director of Corporate & Public Affairs at British Airports Authority until 2000.  Held in conjunction with the university’s Big Picture lecture series.

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If you think John’s media profile is all Radio 1, This Morning and Heat, he was even on BBC Radio 4′s ‘The World Tonight’ discussing Fraces’ victory the night it was broadcast (26mins 14 seconds in).

If you are not a member of the University of Greenwich PR Fraternity, and are interested in finding out about becoming a member or supporter, and joining us at our events, do drop me a line at p.a.simpson@greenwich.ac.uk

The ark as a channel in PR?

In my last post, I celebrated one of my favourite PR campaign’s, the Elephant Parade.  While I warned against the dangers of over exposing a new idea, I was particularly drawn recently to what had been done in a similar way with painted donkeys.

What I had not quite been prepared was was quite how much of an industry there now was in ‘painted animals’ as a channel of communication in PR.  Towns and cities using art in the template form of the painting of a sculpted animal by celebrities, artists, designers and local opinion leaders, to do something for their profile and reputation.  In the process, they also do something for the profile (and fundraising) of a charity, usually related to the animal involved.

For Southampton, try rhinos, supporting three charities.

A painted rhino in Southampton

A painted rhino in Southampton

For Norwich, try gorillas, raising money for the Born Free Foundation, and Break.

One of Norwich's gorilla's with local celebrity Jake Humphrey.

One of Norwich’s gorilla’s with local celebrity Jake Humphrey.

For Bristol, try local canine celebrity, Gromit.  Here, the idea brought 1.8 million people out to see the sculptures, is estimate to have brought  £75 million to the city, and raised £2.3 million for the Bristol Children’s Hospital – as reported by the BBC.

One of Bristol's many popular Gromits.

One of Bristol’s many popular Gromits.

Berlin has its bears, promoting peace and tolerance on its behalf around the world, and children’s charities at home.

Berlin's painted bears celebrate the city around the world.

Berlin’s painted bears celebrate the city around the world.

And cities around the world compete for the right to host the annual ‘Cow Parade’ – this year stopping off in both Valenciennes in France, and in Hong Kong.

One of the cows in the Cow Parade

One of the cows in the Cow Parade

The technique has become such a phenomenon that there are now even dedicated specialist animal casting companies, offering animals including goats, buffalo and horses too, ready to be painted.

A great example of PR increasing our involvement with an issue by promoting the public’s following of a city’s animal trail, initiatives such as painting workshops for children, and ultimately, the auction.

A great example of engaging opinion leaders and celebrities in designing their own versions of the particular animal.

A great example of linking the cause to the tactic involved – and embedding the technique in, and benefiting from sense of ‘place’, or local pride.

I’m looking forward to the animals continuing to stream on board the PR ark!

Elephants and Donkeys form the frontline in PR tactical offensive – what is next?

One of my favourite campaigns of recent years was the Elephant Parade in London in 2010.  It sought to raise the profile of the plight of the Asian elephant, and the destruction of their environment.

London's Elephant Parade in 2010 (Telegraph)

London’s Elephant Parade in 2010 (Telegraph)

It was innovative, not just in the way it harnessed art as tactic in the PR practitioner’s reportoire, but it was thoughtful in how it correctly recognised that if it had any chance of success, it must increase the audience’s level of involvement with the campaign, rather than just ‘turning up the volume’.

It did this in two particular ways.  The first was by exploiting the interest of children, laying on painting workshops for them and their parents.  By getting their hands dirty with paint, and creating their own ‘collateral’, this guaranteed that when the issue was next raised, these ‘fans’ would be more likely to be supporters (and have a greater level of understanding of the issues).

The second was to engage artists and celebrities to design their own elephants, which, after appearing in random locations around the capital, would be auctioned off at a VIP auction to raise funds for the cause.  In this way, an army of active opinion-formers were recruited to the cause, loyal because of their level of engagement too, in which they could take some level of pride.

Elephant Parade (2010) outside City Hall

Elephant Parade (2010) outside City Hall

Without such an approach, ‘involvement’ would have been less, and levels of support for a far-off cause less enduring.

The campaign was also endearing in how it sought to capture the attention of the public, and the media at large.  Rather than going for the more traditional ‘stunt’, or a lavish press conference featuring a ‘star’ from ‘Made in Chelsea’ or equivalent, organisers let the public find the painted elephants for themselves.

More of the elephants in the Parade (2010)

More of the elephants in the Parade (2010)

One morning, listeners to phone-in shows started to call in, reporting their appearance, as if by magic.  Through ‘word-of-mouth’ speculation was under starter’s orders.  By the following day, the media was full of photos and reports, and hordes of families and tourists in particular were ticking off lists of elephants that they wanted to find for themselves on the trail.

If I’m honest with myself, although strategy has to come first in public relations, I will always be a tactics girl.  I get a personal thrill and apply academic conceptual relish in discovering new, and ever more effective PR tactics.  I do not mean inauthentic, ‘shouty’ stunts of old, but anything that really works – whatever that can be shown to mean.  Usually, when it comes to that search, there is nothing more soul destroying that upturning a pale-imitation that betrays a lack of imagination.

Painted Donkeys at St Paul's

Painted Donkeys at St Paul’s

At first sight, that is what I thought I had discovered last week when I heard the story of the painted donkeys – “what have they done to my elephants?”, I thought.  But on closer examination, I realised that this was another example of a similar use of the techniques deployed, arguably with greater authenticity and depth, if not exposure.

The CARAVAN Exhibition seeks to communicate the message of tolerance between Christianity and Islam, and similarly commissioned a range of artists to paint an animal.  It is sponsored by the Embassy of Switzerland and supported by the British Council, and arrived at St Paul’s after transferring from the streets of Cairo!  A fabulous campaign.  The organisers may not describe it as PR, but it is, and I salute them.

The search continues for the next innovation in PR tactics.  Anything might have its uses.  We’ve seen media, photography, events, sponsorship – I could go on for some time.  More recently, we’ve had a wide range of arts, even baking.

Citizen Science - camera in hand

Citizen Science – camera in hand

My top tip came as a eureka moment listening to a BBC radio documentary in the last week on Citizen Science.

Citizen Science - another meaningful method to garner involvement

Citizen Science – another meaningful method to garner involvement

The feature was highlighting the story of a project engaging locals on Montserrat to fly kites with cameras tied on to them over the crater of a volcano to make important readings.  A great example of story-telling, and captivating for media relations, but it was also a gateway to other recent examples, such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, and a project looking to save trees from disease in Norfolk.

While such projects might not yet have the glamour of art, they have that vital ingredient of offering a genuine way for someone to get involved, and feel they can make a real difference.  If a PR campaign could offer that, it is well on the way to success.  With social media offering more ways of the public to report data finds, and their smart-phones offering a ready made data recorder of so many varieties, my money is on a lab coat, rather than another painted animal as the next big thing in PR.

Make way, make way… Clearing 2013

With A-Level results due out tomorrow (Thursday 15th August), the Clearing operation for this year gets into full swing.  There are opportunities out there for those students who haven’t done as well as they expected, as well as for those who have done better than they had hoped, or might have changed their mind about the course or subject they wish to pursue.

The people over at the University of Greenwich have put together a useful animated guide to the clearing process.  I hope it is of help to anyone who might be feeling daunted by it, rather than seeing it as a new door of opportunity opening up.

I teach on the BA (Hons) Public Relations and Communications degree at Greenwich, and while the degree has seen a surge in interest, with a record number set to start in September, we are still keeping our doors open for potential recruits during Clearing.

Students who have taken Greenwich PR courses have gone on to great success in the public relations world.  Recent graduates Leila Mountford and Arianna Anzaoloni are currently with Weber Shandwick.  Graduate of 2011 Thom Will is working in the world of entertainment/drama PR across a string of TV productions on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky at Ian Johnson Publicity.  And Ingrid Asoni has just set up her own PR/Events/Lifestyle consultancy in Marrakech!

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FratAnzaloniThomWillFratAsoni

More details about these and other members of the Greenwich PR student community, and alumni can be found at their Pinterest site, The PR Fraternity.

The degree welcomes a clutch of new lecturers to its courses alongside established lecturers Mark Phillimore, Dr. Nicky Garsten and myself.  These include Dr. Ed de Quincey, Kathy Watson, and visiting lecturer Ezri Carlebach, alongside established visiting lecturers who include Rebecca Stiasny and Ann Longley.  We are all very excited about the number of guest contributors we have got coming in to do sessions during the course of the year.  I have already got sessions confirmed from the Deputy Programme Director of Kiss FM, Simon Long; and from Andy Parfitt, the Executive Director, Talent at Saatchi & Saatchi, Chair of UK Charity, Youth Music, and former Controller of BBC Radio 1, BBC 1Xtra and BBC Asian Network (amongst other BBC responsibilities).

If you think you might be in Clearing and want to know more about the degree, don’t hesitate to contact the Clearing team at the University who will be happy to help you out – and if you still want more, here’s another video that will give you a little bit more of a flavour.

Whatever your results, good luck in navigating your future career options.

‘PR Fraternity’ pins student success on story-telling

I’m really proud of the PR alumni and students I have had the honour to teach at the University of Greenwich.  As I start to prepare for a new academic year for 2013/14, I’ve started reflecting on some the great positions some of them have gone on to in the world of PR – and the exciting opportunities the current cohort are taking on through internships and work experience.

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We have graduates who have gone on to careers at major agencies (such as Weber Shandwick and Bell Pottinger), specialist agencies (such as FTI Consulting, Kaizo and Ian Johnson Publicity), and in-house, while others have set up on their own.  The ‘Pinterest’ site aims to capture a snapshot of some of their stories of success.

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The ‘PR Fraternity‘ is the student-led community of alumni and students which provides networking opportunities, and guest speaker events against the back-drop of one of the finest venues in London – the Old Royal Naval College.  Working with the students, we have just launched a ‘Pinterest site’ to celebrate achievements, promote experience, and encourage networking – not to mention support recruitment.

http://pinterest.com/prfraternity/  Do take a look at the rest of the images – we will be adding to them on a rolling basis.

The location of the BA (Hons) Public Relations and Communications and MA Public Relations at the University of Greenwich, with Canary Wharf and the West End on its door-step is perfect for being able set up this level of experience, which can help lead to ultimate career success.

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Above: Michelle Amos (Top); Claire Daley (Middle); Thom Will (Nearest above).

Bad smell

The recent campaign by Andrex has left me a little bemused.

I don’t think I can be accused of being a prude.  And as the theme of this blog will testify, it has not been unknown for me to have an unnatural interest in toilet health.

loorollholder

This campaign appears to think it is extremely clever.  It toys with one of those last areas of taboo in modern life that has otherwise been turned over to exhibitionism.  By attempting to generate a debate on how, not to put too fine a point on it, we ‘wipe our backsides’ it goes somewhere that we just do not want to go in public.

Andrex wants to know how you wipe your bum

Andrex wants to know how you wipe your bum

Conventional marketing communications theory would say, “brilliant!”  The implication is that the shock value of seeing people talking about how they wipe their bum will grab our attention, watch the advert, and buy the toilet roll.  And by engaging us in social media, by asking us to choose whether we ‘fold‘ or ‘scrunch‘, it deepens our relationship with the brand.

For some time, I’ve reflected on whether advertisers may be forced to abandon the traditional ‘message effect’ of the persuasion tools of humour, guilt and fear, in favour of the more physiologically grounded effect of disgust, whether moral or physical.  In an increasingly noisy environment, such effects are less easy to avoid than the traditional ones more grounded in psychology.  I’ve had Kelly, D (2011) by my bedside, but never seem to get the guts to read it.  Maybe the Andrex campaign is the excuse I need.

Apologies for the imagery (Andrex planted it there), but am I the only one for whom this argument leaves ‘skidmarks’?  If they needed to grab your attention, I could understand, but they don’t.  As a loyal Andrex customer, I’m left bemused, and feeling as if I should switch to another brand.

If the campaign had been run with a PR element to it, I would have been much more sympathetic to it.  Do we really believe Andrex ‘give a shit’ whether we ‘fold‘ or ‘scrunch‘?  If they did, and it was a genuine conversation, perhaps it would work.

A genuine cause, rather than just getting the tills ringing

A genuine cause, rather than just getting the tills ringing

Maybe if the effort had been linked to something more substantial, such as an awareness raising campaign in conjunction with Beating Bowel Cancer, or another charitable campaign on sanitation, I would have been a lot more sympathetic to it.  There could have been much more active media relations and social media activity on the basis of this charitable ‘CSR’, and what is often called the ‘managed controversy’ discussed earlier that would help secure column inches, as well as people talking, for the right reasons.  There are links to charities on the Andrex website, but nothing above and beyond their usual work, and nothing tied in with this campaign.

Instead, I’m left feeling like this is a cheap stunt on Andrex’s part, and as such, it leaves me with a bad smell.  Here endeth the toilet humour.

Kelly, Daniel (2011) “Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust”, Massachusetts: MIT Press