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Campaign of the century

14 Jul

This is a summary of a paper I presented at the International History of Public Relations Conference at Bournemouth on 8 July 2015.

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Is the anti-smoking campaign the public relations campaign of the twentieth century?

It scores on awareness of the link between smoking and disease; it has achieved widespread attitude change around the issue of passive smoking; and it has reduced smoking from a majority to a minority habit.

Some might argue that the campaign has not succeeded because almost one in five of adults (19%) still smoke. But those behind the campaign had a different goal – to make smoking abnormal in society.

This was not initially a government campaign. It was initiated by a professional group of doctors – the Royal College of Physicians – whose only previous public campaign had been to lobby for an increase in the price of gin in 1725.

Nor was it obvious that doctors should take a stance on smoking. Some still smoked in the 1950s, and many felt that it was not their role to campaign against cigarettes as they were not a disease (though smoking could lead to disease).

Change came with the election of Robert Platt to the presidency of the Royal College of Physicians in 1957. His greatest achievement as president was the report on Smoking and Health published in 1962. The catalyst for this report was a chest physician, Charles Fletcher, who had presented two BBC television programmes about health in the late 1950s and was a natural communicator.

Fletcher edited the report to make it comprehensible to the public and members of parliament (previous reports from the college had been written for medical practitioners only).

Smoking and Health coverThis report was launched on 7 March 1962 – Ash Wednesday – when the college held its first ever press conference.

The morning press conference was well attended and the press release from this event provides an early and compelling example of risk communication. How to present the mortality risks from smoking to a roomful of journalists? Platt is reported as saying:

‘Those who smoke 25 or 30 cigarettes a day have about thirty times the chance of dying of [lung cancer] than a non-smoker does. Of course you might say it is still only the minority, about one in eight of heavy smokers, who died of the disease, and this is true. But supposing you were offered a flight on an airline and you were told that usually only about one in eight of their airlines crashed, you might think again.’

The report received extensive and largely positive press coverage – and interviews were given to the BBC and ITV (the only two television channels in the UK at that time).

Journalists accepted the evidence, though some questioned what action government should take.

The Daily Mail editorial from 8 March 1962 illustrates this ambivalence:

Risk in a cigarette

Men and women must decide for themselves whether to continue smoking or not. For the Government to try to do it for them would be an interference with individual liberty.

That is our first reaction the latest report on the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It comes from the Royal College of Physicians, whose warnings should be taken to heart.

After years of argument there is no longer any doubt about the correlation between the smoke and the disease. The evidence is too overwhelming to be explained away.

We would strongly oppose the suggestion that the price of cigarettes should be made almost prohibitive. This is the wrong approach.

Smoking is a virtual necessity for millions of people and there would be widespread resentment (or pay demands) if a packet of 20 were put up to, say, 10s.’

To regulate smoking in public places is a better proposal. The foul atmosphere of cinemas and some theatres is a reproach.

But if restrictions are to be applied to tobacco, as they have to smoke from chimneys, why not also to car fumes? It is time some cleansing apparatus on exhaust pipes was made compulsory.

The tobacco manufacturers have spent a lot of money on research into lung cancer and have published the results without fear or favour. As they say themselves, still more is needed.

If they could find how to take the risk, but not the pleasure, out of cigarettes, they would do themselves and the public a great service.

The report presented seven recommendations for possible action by government:

  1. ‘more education of the public and especially schoolchildren concerning the hazards of smoking
  2. ‘more effective restrictions on the sale of tobacco to children
  3. ‘restriction of tobacco advertising
  4. ‘wider restriction of smoking in public places
  5. ‘an increase of tax on cigarettes
  6. ‘informing purchasers of the tar and nicotine content of the smoke of cigarettes
  7. ‘investigating the value of anti-smoking clinics to help those who find difficulty in giving up smoking.’

Looking back after more than 50 years, we can see that the aims of the report’s authors had been achieved. Indeed, in one case action has gone beyond what they had asked for (the health warning on cigarette packets has evolved into a blunt warning that ‘smoking kills’.)

The report sold well in the UK and the US and it received widespread and largely positive press coverage. But it did not initially lead to government action.

Some limited restrictions on TV advertising were introduced in 1965 and the Health Education Council (now Health Education Authority) was formed in 1968. It commissioned anti-smoking campaigns from Saatchi & Saatchi in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So the initial response was disappointing, and after a brief decrease, numbers of those smoking (especially women) began to rise again.

The Royal College of Physicians decided to keep campaigning. A follow-up report ‘Smoking and Health Now’ was published in 1971 (this described the deaths from smoking-related diseases as a ‘holocaust’) and the College established the campaigning group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Further reports followed in 1977 and 1983 – by which time attention had shifted to the issue of passive smoking.

Today, the UK has the strongest controls on tobacco of any country in the EU. Banning tobacco advertising, increasing taxes, banning smoking in public places have all helped to make smoking abnormal – but government was initially slow to act.

The campaign against smoking is now seen as a model for other public health campaigns (only this week doctors have called for an increase in the price of sweetened drinks). It marked a shift from doctors focusing on treating infectious diseases to campaigning on chronic (‘lifestyle’) disease, using the tools of public relations and public affairs.

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Referendum: three awkward truths

3 May

Here are three things that have contributed to the awkwardness surrounding the referendum campaign.

  1. Governments don't like referendums (the last and only other UK-wide referendum was in 1975) in case we cast a vote about them rather than on the issue. But this government is unusual since it's a coalition and the Conservatives and Lib Dems are split on this question. Heads or tails?
  2. Many supporters of Yes are only lukewarm about the alternative voting system (AV) because though it may be a bit fairer, but it's still not proportional. Most, though, would not go along with Lord Owen who advocates a No vote because he's holding out for proportional representation.
  3. Those campaigning for No don't want the public to realise that they're almost all Conservatives, hence their enthusiasm to put forward former Labour cabinet ministers. But where has the money for the campaign come from?

My verdict? I think the No campaign has been the more effective and may have succeeded. They've learnt some lessons from US politics and have played to people's fears. Negative campaigning appears to work.

Me? I'm voting Yes. Remember how you felt over the MPs' expenses scandal? Most of the worst excesses came from MPs with 'safe' seats. If you support tribal, binary Labour-Conservative politics, then the status quo has suited you well. But for many of us (and for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) politics is much more than a binary choice. So get used to ranking candidates by preference (or simply voting 1 instead of an X if you must).

What of the cost issue (the main thrust of the negative No campaign? By this argument, we'd dispense with all elections whatever the system because they're also expensive. So it's Yes to democracy. Make sure you vote on Thursday.

PR and the power of ideas

11 Nov

Evolving client needs 'The power of the idea is more important that ever'.

So reports @souljaof4tune attending today's Impress conference via Twitter.

It's an echo of the point made by Martin Thomas, co-author of Crowd Surfing, at last week's PRCA conference (illustrated here). The idea is central to all PR and marcoms campaigns.

You don't start with the execution (eg advertising); you start with the idea. We recall the 'Best Job in the World' campaign. Some will know that it won a PR award, though fewer recall that this was collected by an ad agency, Cummins Nitro. It's the idea that matters, not the agency or the discipline.

In passing, I did not attend either the Impress or the PRCA conference. Nor do I know Zubair Ahmed (souljaof4tune) or Martin Thomas personally (though I have read his book). But neither drawback is a barrier to the communication of (good) ideas.

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How PR works: softly and subliminally

2 Aug

Imagine there's a new technology that can save consumers money, at no expense to them. It sounds like a perfect PR story. But that's to ignore people's inertia, the media's suspicion of a PR-generated story, and the difficulty of grabbing attention when people are selective about the messages they're willing to receive.

Shell fuel save There's a randomness to our message and media consumption. Here are some of the factors that worked for me in the Shell Fuel Save campaign:

Availability and attention: I picked up a discarded Metro newspaper on a commuter train last week. Wrapped around the news content was a prominent advertisement for the improved fuels. I had the time; I had the interest (self-interest), I read the message. I live remotely so I'm dependent on my own transport, and a Shell petrol station is nearest to and most convenient for me too.

Warm-up and follow-through: Only now that my interest was gained did I recall reading something about 'Freddie' Flintoff driving further on one litre of fuel. Later, when I filled up at the Shell petrol station, the staff were handing out leaflets explaining the fuels. There were prominent signs to ensure the attention of passing motorists too.

Word of mouth: It may be because of my age and income, it may be because of environmental concerns too, but I'm much more interested in a car's economy than I am by its acceleration. So I do keep a close eye on my fuel consumption and the early indications from my two diesel-engined vehicles are that the new fuels are noticeably more economical. 

Some other factors worth mentioning in this short, personal, account of campaign effectiveness are:

Context: We don't like the major oil companies – but with BP suffering damage to its reputation this year, now is a good time for Shell to gain advantage through a positive campaign.

Multi-media: In major campaigns (this one is global), it's never a case of PR or advertising; marketing or graphic design. It takes a combination of media channels for the message to reach home. The PR aspect of the campaign outlined above might seem minor – but I'm giving praise for a softly, softly approach. By feeling that I'd somehow stumbled onto a good thing by myself, I'm more inclined to help spread the word.

Social media: Clearly, there's an online element to this campaign (it's supported by this website). But with something as real world and undigital as dirty, expensive diesel, that wasn't the first place to discover the campaign. Online and social media in this case play a supporting role – but I suspect the long tail of blog and Twitter chatter will quickly overtake the 'hit' factor of major media coverage (which has been modest).

He can. Can you?

28 Jan

JustGiving 'I can't find any work experience'. It's a familiar cry from PR students and my response today was unsympathetic.

If a seven year old boy can make news headlines and ludicrously overshoot his modest fundraising target, then surely PR professionals (or PR students) should feel under pressure to do better.

There's a serious point here. The other PR star of this week was Apple Computer boss Steve Jobs for the sheer attention he gained unveiling the iPad yesterday.

Boys do it. Bosses do it. Even educated interns do it. Let's do it. Let's do PR. (With apologies to Cole Porter).

In praise of free PR

11 Dec

Groundswell, Here Comes Everybody, Crowd Surfing, Tribes: some of the most interesting books published this year have referred to the significance of the amateur and the importance of bottom-up, organic campaigns.

That’s not to dismiss the importance of professionalism or to devalue the importance of money. But, as a classroom exercise, a group of students were asked to imagine how they would help an individual raise money for charity, for free. Their recommendations were competent, but they kept displaying their dismay at being asked to do this for free (this was for practice, remember, not for real). They hadn’t considered that a well-funded charity campaign might be counter-productive. If the charity has the money to spend on promotions, then does it really need our money? That top-down messages are not always persuasive.

It takes experience to give good advice; it takes time to conduct good research. Good public relations does not usually come for free, but it has the benefits of the message being freely transmitted (by the media, via social media and word of mouth). So here’s the paradox: good PR advice might be expensive, but has the benefit of appearing to be free.

Here’s my standout sentence from Seth Godin’s new book, Tribes (my italics):

Marketing used to be about advertising, and advertising is expensive. Today, marketing is about engaging with the tribe and delivering products and services with stories that spread.

You can call it viral marketing, but I call this public relations.

The fall of advertising, and the fall of financial institutions

28 Sep

This goes even further than the thesis proposed in Al Ries and Laura Ries’s 2002 book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR.

Have you noticed the link between those institutions spending most on advertising and sponsorship and those now losing their independence?

I started observing this trend a decade ago with Equitable Life. I’d trusted this cautious insurer with my personal pension plan because it came highly recommended by other professionals. Then the company appeared as sponsors of a prime time television comedy, Frasier (remember the tag line, ‘it’s an equitable life, Henry’?); next thing the company was closed to new business and savers took what they could from the wreckage (in those days there was no sympathy for savers and no talk of nationalisation).

Now we have numerous case studies: Northern Rock – sponsors of a professional football team, Newcastle United; AIG, sponsors of Manchester United; Halifax (now part of no-longer-independent HBOS), famous for the singing mortgage adviser (‘as seen on TV’); and bowler-hatted Bradford & Bingley and its TV presence (pride comes before the fall).

I’m not suggesting cause and effect (that the cost of TV advertising or football sponsorship tipped these institutions into insolvency), but I am suggesting a corporate or managerial vanity that should have indicated to investors that their money would be safer elsewhere.

If advertising wasn’t the answer, could PR have done better? It would have taken a very confident and assertive PR adviser to have cautioned against this corporate vanity. Unfortunately, we’re only ever blessed with hindsight once it’s too late.

Out of the wreckage, some institutions will emerge even stronger. I’m suggesting it’s likely they will have been less flashy with their money (our money) in the good times; they may also have some of the better PR advisers in the sector, who will not only have helped save their employers’ independence, but may also have saved them millions on advertising on sponsorship.