Una Carlin, owner of Carlin Creative and former chief spokesperson for the BBC in Northern Ireland talks about how passion and determination can help publicists overcome some pitfalls in communications planning.
Last month I had the privilege of working alongside the incredibly professional and efficient communications team, Joanne McCallister, Director of Fundraising and Communications, Rachel Burgoyne, Communications Manager and Gail Whyte, Press Officer for Cancer Fund for Children providing additional strategic communications and media relations support as the charity announced its ambitious plans to roll out its specialist services across the whole of Ireland.
Those plans also include the building of a new therapeutic short break facility in County Mayo which will be modelled upon and named after its counterpart, Daisy Lodge in Newcastle, County Down supported by Rory McIlroy and the Rory Foundation. The charitable foundation of the four time Major winner has pledged 1.2m Euros as part of a major donor strategy that will help turn this long term vision into a reality.
The campaign marked the most significant development in the charity’s history and was launched at an event in Leeson Street, Dublin on Thursday, June 22 and timed to run in advance of Rory’s return home to host the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open 2017 at Portstewart in early July.
In the end, it played out into a packed post-election news agenda including the appointment of a new Taoiseach, the DUP deal with Theresa May, the impasse at and never ending saga of Stormont and the still unfolding tragedy of Grenfell Tower which really does puts everything else in life sharply into perspective.
Busy news agendas are challenging at the best of times and can derail months of detailed communications planning without a moment’s notice. In my early days at the BBC in Northern Ireland, shortly after returning home from ITV in London, terrorists flew passenger planes into the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11 in one of the most horrific attacks the world has ever witnessed.
In the press office, there was nothing else we could do but get on with the job of selling in and promoting our Autumn Season of programmes. We did the best we could in the sombre days to follow making limited headway in a six week sea of local, national and international headlines that did not subside as the world began to come to terms with a new order.
Sometimes, as in the case with Grenfell Tower or the World Trade Centre, there is nothing to be done other than acknowledge the weight of human suffering, take stock and get to grips with the fact that business agendas and corporate goals and objectives are, sometimes, just not as important as what is happening elsewhere in the world.
A sympathetic organisation and a good publicist will know that this is part of the job and that it comes with the media relations territory to expect the unexpected. Press coverage is something that is never guaranteed no matter how newsworthy it is on the day. The world can change in an instant.
In my view, it is how you respond to it that matters, not by giving up and going home but accepting the circumstances for what they are, then digging in deep to try and do the best you can for either your company or client but being tenacious only if and when the circumstances are appropriate.
Careful decisions need to be taken on whether or not to proceed with selling strategies particularly in times of crises when a hard sell at the wrong time can easily be perceived as either bad taste, poor judgment or a combination of both.
As it happened, unforeseen pressures from the external environment at the time of the Cancer Fund for Children launch meant the campaign got off the starting blocks at a slower pace than I would have liked.
The media in Northern Ireland were quicker to pick it up than their ROI counterparts; perhaps due to a greater familiarity with the many positive benefits the charity has brought to local families facing a diagnosis of childhood cancer over 40-years in NI and for the last 20 to families throughout all of Ireland.
Broadcast journalist Paul Reilly from UTV, took time to travel to Daisy Lodge in Newcastle, County Down to interview Cancer Fund for Children’s irrepressible CEO, Gillian Creevy and to speak to a family who have benefited from the short break therapeutic facility they offer.
On a spectacular summer’s day, outside and near the play area in Daisy Lodge set amongst the healing, tranquil and majestic vistas of the Mourne Mountains, I watched on in the background as Paul interviewed Caroline and her daughter Katie Toland.
Katie was diagnosed with leukemia in 2013 at just five years old. Wrapping up the interview, Paul asked her: “Katie, if I was to ask you, if there was just one thing you loved about Daisy Lodge what would it be?” Her reply: “Spending time with my family.”
Not toys, or friends, or food or treats. Just one little girl’s assessment of the amazing work that Cancer Fund for Children does to help bring shattered and exhausted families back together in a restorative and nurturing environment as far removed from a clinical or hospital setting as possible.
The news agenda may well have been creaking at the seams but moments like these make me all the more determined to tell the Cancer Fund for Children story because it is an important one. Each week across Ireland, ten families, seven in the ROI and three in NI will face the devastating news their child has cancer.
No matter what else is going on in the world, in their darkest hours, don’t these families, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents deserve to know that practical and emotional support is coming their direction?
For publicists and communications professionals, it really helps to be passionate about what it is that you are selling. If you believe in it and have conviction you can and will achieve the desired results.
In this case, it took a little longer than expected but in the end the media responded with news and features running across local, regional, national and international broadcast, print and digital press.
Rory returning home (as popular as ever) to host and play at the Irish Open 2017 also gave the campaign new impetus and a fresh set of legs allowing for another round of pro-active press activity some ten days later which secured a front page cover in the Sun newspaper – much more along the lines of the size and scale of the publicity I had originally anticipated.
In the end it was a marathon, not a sprint and where dogged determination paid off. News, features and double page spreads ran in the Irish News, Belfast Telegraph, Irish Sun, Irish Daily Mail, Irish Examiner, Evening Echo, Waterford News, Connaught Telegraph, Tuam Herald, Mayo News, Community Radio and on the BBC (thank you Stephen Watson) UTV (radio, television and online) on RTE, Newstalk, Mid-west Radio, Today FM and international press.
I’m very glad we got there.
One final word of advice on communications planning – always keep a weather eye on the context and environment into which you are going to launch a new product or service.
Do your best to find out what other big announcements or events are happening around that time, launch as early in the day and week as possible and for the love of God avoid an Election period at all costs.