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Using PR to Own an Issue

Imagine the scenario. A couple of years ago, the head of communications at a national retailer heads into a board meeting to discuss an issue that she had been thinking about privately, and has finally worked up the courage to discuss with the board.

When she suggests to the board that the company could gain significant positive PR coverage by announcing a new strategy – a commitment to reduce plastics by switching to paper-based packaging, she’s met with an incredulous CEO;

‘Do you know how much that would cost?! We have profit margins to think of! We have customers who want value products and shareholders who want strong trading figures’.

But that head of communications could now easily draw upon this conversation and ask the CEO;

‘Do you know how much it has cost us not to [reduce plastics] when we talked about it?’

At MD Consulting, when we sit down with clients to plan out the communications strategy for the year, or the quarter, we know roughly what products they’ll be launching, what events they’re attending and what industry awards we should focus on. We know less about what will happen in the market, in politics and public opinion, although we can make informed predictions. And yet, sometimes if we allow ourselves to bring our ‘home’ life into the office, interesting conversations with clients and colleagues can often lead to powerful, and unexpected PR opportunities.

A high profile example of where this home-life scenario worked really well is when broadcasting giant Sky launched the Ocean Rescue digital campaign back in in January 2017, with the aim of increasing awareness of the challenge of plastic waste in our oceans. At the launch, the head of Sky News John Ryley, wrote an open letter explaining that a conversation with his adult son, a marine biology student, had had a profound effect on him and led him to push for Sky’s next corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme to be around ocean health.

‘…My son went on to give me a spur-of-the-moment lecture on what he sees as potentially the most dangerous environmental catastrophe confronting his generation. Namely, the whole-scale pollution of the world’s oceans’.

However, Sky Ocean Rescue was much more than a CSR campaign, and a marketing directive. It was to straddle the two and influence;
– internal company culture
– public opinion and awareness
– and public policy

Sky’s head of inspirational business & Sky Ocean Rescue, Fiona Ball explained in an interview with online sustainability magazine edie;

“We set out very clearly from the start that Sky Ocean Rescue was never going to be a CSR programme to us. It was never going to be something just housed in the sustainability department at Sky… It would never be big enough and wouldn’t get the reach we wanted. We really wanted to change things up and change the plastics system.”

Although, of course, this being Sky, the theme of plastic waste was hardly the personal choice of one individual. The pros and cons will have been weighed and measured, and as with all good PR the story was backed up with (truly shocking) stats;

• A Sky News poll shows that 84% of people are concerned about the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans
• 13 billion single-use plastic bottles are sold in Britain each year (an average of 200 per person) – less than half of these are recycled
• Most types of plastic are not biodegradable. They can stay in the ocean for centuries. (source: UNEP)
• By 2050, the plastic in the oceans COULD weigh more than all the fish (source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
• The average family uses 55 kilograms of plastic every year – a rubbish truck’s worth

In a happy co-incidence for Sky, the Ocean Rescue campaign just pre-dated rival broadcaster BBC’s Blue Planet 2, which in October of the same year, shook the nation into paying attention to the scale of the plastic problem, and added to the feeling that the Ocean Rescue campaign was part of a zeitgeist moment. Gradually, Ocean Rescue exposed the scandalous levels of plastic pollution around the world, through sports events, interviews with industry experts, and a 45-minute original TV documentary of its own, shown on Sky Atlantic.

They also;

• Announced that all single-use plastics will be removed from its products, operations and supply chain by 2020
• Invested £25m into an Ocean Rescue Innovation Fund to develop remedies to the amount of waste seeping into oceans
• Convinced more than 220 MPs and MEPs into committing to change their own behaviour and consumption of single-use plastics

Now, when we think of the plastics issue, Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign and Blue Planet 2 are the two most commonly mentioned sources. So why would a multi-national, multi-billion-pound corporation choose to get involved in an issue like this? Especially one which is so seemingly uncorrelated with its own corporate activities? After all, Sky isn’t a major producer of plastic waste. Nor is it at risk of losing customers over the turning tide of public opinion on plastics. So, what is their PR investment achieving?

Well, for starters the campaign’s engagement stats are remarkable;

  • more than 33.5 million people have so far interacted with Sky Ocean Rescue
  • more than a million people have engaged with Sky’s #PassOnPlastic campaign on Twitter
  • Sky worked with the Premier League on a commitment to eliminating single-use plastics from the organisation by 2020, whilst encouraging football clubs and fans across the country to stop using certain plastics.

And other factors include;

1. Employee engagement 
It’s not just customers who engage with CSR/PR campaigns. When the campaign is worked into company culture, all employees should feel the benefits, whether tangible or the ‘feel good factor’.

2. Long-term strategy
Even organisations the size of Sky can never be entirely sure what the future holds. Negative stories? M&A? A positive CSR campaign, and the associated positive media coverage can mitigate the damage of future negative stories.

3. Differentiating from the competition 
There are several major broadcasters in the UK, and many smaller ones. However, the BBC and Sky are two of the biggest and Sky, by demonstrating it has the resources to undertake a massive campaign like this, and really effect change, is demonstrating its market-leading position and positioning itself as the broadcaster to beat.

Having said that, it’s not just organisations the size of Sky that can use PR to own an issue! Any company (or even freelancer, for that matter) can associate themselves with a cause that they care about – regardless of how relevant that cause is to their business. Through carefully thought-out PR and marketing activities, you can reap professional rewards for a cause that has a personal resonance with you or your business.

Having said that, it’s not just organisations the size of Sky that can use PR to own an issue! Any company (or even freelancer, for that matter) can associate themselves with a cause that they care about – regardless of how relevant that cause is to their business. Through carefully thought-out PR and marketing activities, you can reap professional rewards for a cause that has a personal resonance with you or your business.

However, a couple of words of caution;
1. Try to avoid causes which are already getting a lot of attention or you risk looking like you’re jumping on the bandwagon, or worse, exploiting a cause for your own commercial benefit
2. If you decide to pursue a social CSR or PR initiative, you really have to ‘live and breathe’ the project – or risk it backfiring. For example, Facilities Management magazine ended up looking totally disingenuous when it published big article on reducing plastic…swiftly followed by several incredulous tweets from readers sending pics of the magazine – wrapped in plastic!

Here’s the statement they put out following the backlash.

If you need help creating or implementing a CSR PR campaign, contact MD Consulting.


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