Crisis PR

By The Drum | Administrator

July 14, 2005 | 9 min read

Those of you that caught the news last month about US drink Snapple coming a cropper when it tried to break the world record for a frozen sculpture, will no doubt have thought, ‘there but for the grace of God’.

Snapple had erected a 15-ton ice-pop in New York’s Union Square to launch its kiwi-strawberry flavour and to try and beat the world record for the biggest ice-pop. As the sculpture was hoisted into the air, the warm June sun proved too much and the ice-pop started to melt. A thick slush of flavoured liquid started creeping across 17th Street and the US Fire Department had to be called in to clean the streets and ensure safety. Not the best start to a launch. But what’s a PR agency to do?

One mishap when you’re launching something is understandable, few clients would fire an agency for a happenstance, but spare a thought for Glasgow City Council’s marketing team which went through easily the most beleaguered PR campaign when it started to work on the launch of the Special Olympics, which were held last week in the city.

“I’ve never worked on a project as stressful in my life,” says Gordon Ritchie, head of corporate marketing at Glasgow City Council.

The project in itself looked tough. Launch the Special Olympics with a marketing budget of next to nothing, raise £1.5m and put Glasgow on the map for holding such a prestigious event. Normally that would be tough, but given that the whole event would be happening while the world’s eyes were going to be on the G8 Summit, the council knew its work was cut out.

But the dye was cast when the council organised its first press conference on Tuesday, 11 May. “Our press conference was at 11.30am, and the Maryhill plastics factory blew up at 12.00noon,” says Ritchie. “All the journalists left to cover the factory blast story.

“After that, we were due to start our ad campaign and we consulted with everybody when the best time was to start an ad campaign from a charitable stance, and it’s meant to be between Christmas and New Year,” he goes on. “We were due to start it on the 27th and the tsunami hit on the 26th. So our campaign got pulled. After the tsunami, when we got into work and got back round the table in January, all the press and PR had disappeared. If a newspaper’s going out with 48 pages, 36 are tsunami and the rest is sport, there’s no space for anything else; it’s world news. Then they [the tsunami charities] started raising funds.”

The fund-raising hit many other good causes hard and Ritchie believes that the clash of fund-raising campaigns hit the council’s targets badly. “We pulled the publicity deliberately, knowing full well that in the end it was going to cause us a problem,” he says. “A tough decision to call. If the tsunamii hadn’t happened we’d have been well up on the fundraising. We then gave it until the end of March and, after liaising with the governing charity, we decided to start fund-raising. We started advertising it and we thought, ‘We’ll do another launch, because of the plastics factory blast’. We’ve got all these Scottish celebrities coming along to do the launch, we have it all programmed in, and then on the day the Pope dies.”

The week following Pope John Paul II’s death, newspapers were full of speculation about his successor, and the following weekend, the papers were full of even more news, the postponed Royal Wedding.

Although the G8 Summit was identified as a competitor for news space early on, few could have anticipated exactly how big a part it would play. On 11 May, the same time as Glasgow City Council was due to launch its line-up for the opening ceremony, Sir Bob Geldof announced that he was launching five free concerts around the world to support the Make Poverty History cause. These concerts were on the same day as the Special Olympics opening ceremony.

“If you think of the number of newspapers who gave free space to MPH, we’re competing with that free space and to add to it, he [Geldof] organises the world’s biggest pop concert on the same day as our opening ceremony,” says Ritchie. “I’ve been in touch with Harvey Goldsmith to see if they’d link with us, but they said no. BMRB in Birmingham cancelled its Party in the Park, the Prince’s Trust, they all cancelled. We couldn’t, we were too committed. Had we been selling tickets as a commercial event not committed to the Special Olympics opening ceremony, I think I would have been a strong advocate for pulling the event. We couldn’t have competed against it. We would have moved it to the Sunday or the next Saturday. From a marketing perspective, it’s been 110 per cent harder. By god, we’ve had to work at it.”

John MacDonald, deputy managing director at Weber Shandwick’s Aberdeen office, believes there are times when you just have to admit defeat. “I think if something happens like that you can just hold up your hands and admit that there’s nothing you can do,” he says. “Obviously the more complex the launch, the more things that can go wrong; but if you’re announcing a redundancy or if you’re a listed company, you’re obliged to go ahead. If it was a media launch of a survey or contract or something, I’d be inclined to postpone.”

Negotiating press coverage and then having your story knocked off the front page is galling, at least with some of the advertising deals media owners were reasonable. “A couple of ads ran but most of them were pulled,” says Ritchie. “The companies we dealt with were very, very good. They said, ‘We’ll not charge you for it, you’ll pay for it, but you’ll just get it at a different time’.” Editorial is more time-sensitive. When the Special Olympics opening ceremony happened on 2 July – the same day as the Live 8 gigs around the world – the majority of editorial focus was on the Live 8 concerts, overshadowing the Special Olympics. MacDonald believes it all comes down to relationships. “We largely deal with businesses so it wouldn’t necessarily be the same journalists that would be dealing with the big stories,” he says. “Most of it would be down to relationships if you had to pull something, and if they don’t exist then you’re struggling.”

The clash with a launch can come from the most unlikely sources. While for some, a celebrity wearing something connected to your brand on the day you launch can be a godsend, for others, not so much. “We’ve been working with a fashion client who was launching a nightwear range,” says Kelly Kilner, head of PR at Fifth Ring. “The Michael Jackson case was on, and obviously there’s been a lot of coverage on it. We were about to sell in on the day that he turned up to court in his pyjamas. We knew straight away there was a risk of Michael Jackson and the association with our brand. We just pulled our activity and advised the brand to wait and temper down the activity.”

If the launch had already been sold in, it’s likely that it would have been pulled. “You can’t predict what news is going to come in, day in day out,” she says. “Planning is essential to any campaign activity, and of course there are key landmark dates. In the event of your announcement being potentially scuppered, you might delay it. You would still try and orchestrate it so that you were still announcing it just a day or so later.”

Fortunately for Glasgow City Council, all it could do was rely on the expertise of its marketing team, which was also trying to continue marketing the rest of the council’s activities. “We’re public sector and we keep getting slagged for being rubbish,” Ritchie says. “This is all extra-curricular. We’ve manufactured a lot of it. Marketing’s quite easy when you lay it out in a simple and straightforward manner. All the agencies and Gordon McCormack’s team have been brilliant on it. But every hurdle, we’ve had to overcome. But we’re not geared up for it. We’re a council marketing department.”

By the time you read this, the Special Olympics are over. 20,000 people turned up to the opening ceremony and the council notched up pages of coverage. It was also just £100,000 shy of its target when the Special Olympics started. All on a budget of £320,000. Ritchie tips the estimated worth of the publicity and coverage at £1.5million, thanks to the efforts of the PR agencies – Media House, The Sports Business, Linda Young PR and Coltas – and media partners, Daily Record and Sunday Mail. “They’re all doing it at a very reduced cost,” says Ritchie. “I feel really proud of everyone in there [in the City Chambers’ marketing department], they’re professional marketers. Every one of them has gone the extra mile.

“We knew what our competition was, but we didn’t expect the tsunami, the Pope dying, the plastics factory blowing up, and we didn’t expect Bob Geldof to organise the biggest concert in the world on the same day as ours. Crisis PR? We’ve needed it.”


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