Effective PR: thoughts from 21 years as a communicator

This month I have now racked up twenty one years of working in PR and communications. I have certainly lived through a revolution in the way that we communicate but many of the core principles of PR remain the same despite the disruptive and game-changing influences of the rise of digital and social media, the turbulence in the world of TV and the slow steady decline of print media while remaining influential.

When I started in my first job as a press assistant at the fab Bristol-based charity Sustrans back in September 1997 we used to fax and post out press releases and we had to use the phone (yes that is right we had to talk to people) to get pick up for our stories. This was also in the days before email (they do exist) when you had time to think and you didn’t spend your time with pot-noddle productivity, i.e. responding to the latest email to ping into your in box, instantly.

Now seems a good time to reflect on some of what I think still rings true for impactful and effective PR and Communications.

Research matters –listening to the radio, reading a paper or checking-in on twitter should be how everyone working in communications starts every working day (and also keeps across things at the weekend too). It is vital that you understand the media – the way papers are put together, what works for live news programmes and the structure of TV programmes that you might want to target. Our life is so dominated by digital-on-the-move-communications that you can forget that it is still worth reading a physical paper (and I mean all papers) and listening and watching the TV and radio. My proudest moments in communications have been built on the foundation of getting to know what makes the journalists and programmes that you want to reach tick and how you can create stories that they’ll want to cover.

Coffee and chats – developing good relationships with the media is a vital part of being a good press officer (this doesn’t mean that they won’t cover challenging stories about your organisation). This takes time and patience and is built on the foundation of research (see above) and understanding what people write about.  You ideally want to be seen as a good source of stories and also the first person they think of for those more fallow periods of the year (August and Christmas) when the news agenda goes a bit quieter.

Pictures remain at the heart of communications – planning ahead to get the right picture is really important. We all know how a strong picture can make or break a story and it can be a great frustration for press officers when the images that are sent to support a story are just too poor to use. Pictures can be sourced from photo libraries but commissioning your own photography can add an extra dimension to a story that excites the picture desk and can help the story fly on twitter and Instagram.

Telling stories – storytelling is at the heart of what it means to be human and how we share information (and have been for thousands of years). For all of the planning in the world, communications will only work if you have a strong story to tell that will connect with people and be understood by them. I’ve worked on enough projects and campaigns that are awash with jargon, where you have to be honest with people and say that stripped back and accessible prose is the only way forward. You also have to be proactive: don’t wait for stories to fall into your lap, otherwise you’ll be waiting a long time. Building good internal relationships with people that get the value of communications is so important.

The release is dead, long live the release – every so often a comment piece will appear in PR Week or a blog as an obituary for the humble press release.  I still believe in the press release as an important tool in the communications toolbox. Yes you need a range of content and a key messaging document but the writing of a straight down the line press release will help craft a compelling story and journalists still need them (together with exclusives and more placed pieces). Releases are seen as documents of record and in my mind being able to get a complex story across in one or two sides of A4 is a key communications skill.

Data-driven PR – we live in a world awash with data. Seeing the real-time impact of your communications activity via google analytics and social media tools has made life easier compared to the days of waiting for press cuttings to arrive in the post. However, the big challenge now is using the data to understand what our audiences want and how to reach them all with the right message through the most appropriate channel. This level of sosphication means that some of the measureable rigour of marketing can be brought to PR and communications. It also means that the onus is now on us as communications professionals to actually use the data that we can access to improve the way that we communicate.

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My Dad and 24 hours that shocked the world

50 years ago my Dad, Keith Collins, was caught up in an historical event that shook the world – the Russian invasion of Prague. I had spoken to him many times about this amazing episode in his life, but sadly he died suddenly in January this year and never got round to penning a first person account. This account is based on those conversations, between father and son, the last of which happened at Christmas.

My Dad was 26 years old, an adventurous traveller, having travelled extensively across 1960’s Europe from the North to the South, as shown by the array of stamps in his well used passport.

Dad's passport

In the spring of 1968 he started to plan a trip with a friend to Prague, the then capital city of Czechoslovakia; a jewel of a place, resplendent in medieval architecture and famed for its bohemian qualities. This difficult trip was something that most twenty somethings would never have dreamt of attempting in the 1960s, with the US and USSR at loggerheads during the Cold War.

This journey would be, unbeknown to them when they left London, a huge adventure, travelling beyond the iron curtain which had descended between East and West dividing Europe in the post 1945 world. It would be a trip when Dad got caught up in history in real time in a way that he could never imagine, creating vivid memories that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Going through my Dad’s passport I got a real and tangible sense of this trip of a lifetime. I can imagine the excitement as the days passed and the time to set off got nearer, packing your bags (have you got enough films for the camera and the right clothes for high summer?) and making sure that all the paperwork is in order.

Prague is a beautiful city and it has drawn generations of visitors. For nearly five decades it was cut off from most travellers unless they had a real determination to make it to this place steeped in history and overcome the burdensome red-tape in a world of visa’s.

Dad and his friend arrived in Prague on the 20 August, around a week after they had entered the country. They’d made it through to this magical place through countless checkpoints and overbearing bureaucracy.

Arriving in the city, tired from the long journey, they managed to find a B&B in a fairly central location. This would be an ideal spot to explore the city, gripped by such social and cultural change, trying to build a sense of identity removed from the conformity of the Soviet bloc. The spring of that year had seen the uprisings in Paris and young people across the world were hungry for change and had a thirst to move on from the age of post war austerity and rationing.

The owner of the B&B suggested a place for dinner, and a few beers later it was late and time to get some sleep. But their sleep was brief, and in the early hours of the 21 August, there was a loud knock at the door. The owner of the B&B, in an excited state, shouted: ‘the Russians have invaded’. Bleary eyed Dad and his friend pulled back the curtains to see Russian tanks rolling down the street. To say that this wasn’t something that they had bargained for, was an understatement. I can’t begin to appreciate what it must have been like to see the tanks right in front of your own eyes (surely this only ever happened on the news) and then for the sense of nervous energy kicking in about what to do next.

Russian tank

Shocked by what they were seeing their pragmatism took them off to the British Embassy. Surely this would be a haven in what appeared to be the Russians wanting to impose direct rule on this troublesome member of the Soviet sphere of influence? Banging on the door, a window finally opened and they shouted up to the member of Embassy staff that the Russians had invaded and asked what they should do. In a classic example of British understatement the staff member shouted to come back in the morning when the Embassy opened at 9am. Why panic and upset the British way of doing things? How typical.

They laid low until 9am and joined other visitors at The Embassy hoping for refuge. It was suggested they try to get a train out of the city, so they headed to the main station in Prague, hoping that they could at least get a train and head east towards safety. However, after waiting hours with hundreds of other anxious travellers, everyone in the station was rounded up and escorted off of the premises. What to do next? They had to get out as fast as possible and avoid getting caught up in the fast changing events across the city.

Somehow they found themselves talking to the teachers in a school group whose coach was heading back to West Germany. A lucky break and their journey to freedom. All seemed to be going so well until they reached a checkpoint that had been set up by Russian troops. They boarded the bus and looked at Dad and his friends paperwork. Suspicious of why these English men were on a bus full of German schoolkids one of the soldiers singled dad out, held a gun to his throat, and demanded to see his papers. The stand off and tension built. Imagine that a loaded gun shoved in your throat, your life flashing before you and drops of sweat rolling down your face. In a stroke of sheer luck and quick thinking, one of the teachers said they were English teachers with them on the school trip. Thankfully the soldier believed this story and the coach made its way to the border and on to West Germany.

Unfortunately Dad and his friend didn’t get the opportunity to take any pictures of their few hours in a city turned upside down and collapsing from hope to despair. Though in hindsight this was pretty lucky as it would have potentially becoming a massive hindrance to their journey out of the city.

Dad would develop a lifelong love of Prague and had the opportunity to visit this remarkable city after the Berlin Wall had fallen. Whenever he told the story it felt as fresh as though it was only yesterday and it was something that he talked about over the years with a slight glint in his eye, even then not quite believing what had happened.

Wild words

Over the centuries words have a played a special part in shaping and defining our relationship with the natural world from the carefully crafted wildlife notebooks of Gilbert White to the intense beauty of Helen Macdonald. They have given us the tools to find ways of describing the magic of those moments of wonder when we watch a bird of prey hovering as it hunts for prey or taking a walk through a colour-rich haymeadow in the summer.

Importantly these books have also been vital in capturing our changing relationship with nature. As we have moved en mass from the countryside to the towns and cities in the last two hundred years our deep connection with the natural world waned. Whereas generations ago we could have easily identified wildflowers or trees now we’d struggle to reach double figures for different species.

Nature writing 2

In the last decade there has been a remarkable explosion in books about nature. This seems to have co-incided with and maybe even been fuelled by the financial crash of 2007 and that basic human need for the comfort blanket of familiarity and the power of nature to provide certainty that all is well in a turbulent world. It’s also been important in us dealing with that sense of loss – both in terms of our connection with nature but also the disappearance of species and the threat to our green spaces.

Wander in to any bookshop and it’s likely that you’ll come across a table full of books about nature.  Surging sales of modern nature writing and those wonderfully evocative re-discovered classics are playing an important role in helping us to reignite that love of the natural world and make it part of our everyday lives.

As someone whose love of nature was rekindled through my work and having children the written word played a vital role in helping me to navigate my way through the huge challenges facing the natural world and coming to terms with what it means to me and my family. They gave me the confidence to re-engage with nature and not be afraid by my limited knowledge of birds or butterflies; it was the general appreciation that mattered as much as being able to identify them all. At home I have stacks of well-thumbed books about wildlife and eagerly anticipate the latest release.

Reading the Lorax

Books aimed at kids are a great way to get them into nature

Reading rediscovered classics by Richard Jefferies, wonderful new fiction by Melissa Harrison and the evergreen Lorax by Dr Seuss with my kids, has fired my imagination and created a deeper connection with the wild places where I live. The beauty of new nature writing is that it has found its way into those wild places in the towns and cities as well as the majesty of our ancient woodlands or the pure joy of watching butterflies.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is launching a bid to find the UK’s favourite book about nature, working with a team of researchers at the universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex, as they start a new two-year research project that will focus on the literary, social and cultural impact of writings about the natural world.  The choice of potential nominees is limitless: it could be a novel, piece of non-fiction or a field guide. Crisp, clear and rich writing has that special ability to draw the reader in to the subject matter and bring to life a simple wildlife encounter or help us navigate the huge environmental change that has been happening in our lifetime.

 

24 hours that changed the world of woods

Thirty years ago a fierce storm swept across the South East of England that would change the way that we care for our woods and forests for ever. Millions of trees would be uprooted in a matter of hours and the landscape changed beyond recognition.

Ten years ago, when I was working in the National Trust press office, I spent months pulling together the story for the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of what happened on that fateful night to places such as Churchill’s home at Chartwell and the wonderful Slindon in Sussex. As night became day on the 16 October 1987 the full extent of the devastation became apparent. Once familiar places were changed beyond recognition. Its estimated that 15 million trees came down that night.

At Toys Hill, the highest point in Kent, more than 90 per cent of its trees had fallen. Most of the trees that had survived were the ancient trees, their roots deep enough to survive the power of the winds. It now looked like a lunar landscape and slowly but surely over the years nature began to re-emerge. Toys Hill became the perfect site for an experiment in natural regeneration; something that we take for granted now, but more of a new way of managing the countryside back in the late 1980s.

Talking to the Trust’s rangers, gardeners and forestry experts you got a real sense of the transformational experience of this night for them. Their love of the places that they cared for and the trees that they looked after shone through. It was a night that would change the way that they work forever with the notion of deadwood, or fallen trees, becoming the currency of woodland management, and our relationship woods re-examined and re-imagined.

Mike Calnan, Head of Parks and Gardens in 2007 at the National Trust, had the vision, twenty years earlier, to get up in a helicopter to capture the devastation across the countryside of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. It was a bleak picture of trees that looked like dominoes that had tumbled over with ease. Twenty years on Mike took to the air again to see what had changed and it was fantastic to see the cover of trees back again showing the power of nature to overcome the odds.

It was amazing to listen to how an extreme weather event had changed the way that we think about the management of words so fundamentally.  There was also a feeling that it revived our love, as a nation, for the trees that have played such an important part in our collective story, showing how much we really value them.

 

Food heaven in the heart of Bath

Right in the heart of Bath is a magical world. You can wander into this special place via a normal unassuming door in the middle of the Royal Crescent. Once you pass the threshold you are transported into an oasis of calm that feels a million miles away and seems so unlikely in one of the UK’s top tourism hotspots.

The Royal Crescent Hotel is an important part of my life – its the hotel that I stayed in with my new wife on the night of the day that we were married. I can still remember it as though it was yesterday. And here I am again twelve years later, sampling a newly prepared taster menu to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Crescent.

For me food is always elevated to the next level by the experience of eating. The setting, service and company really does matter and adds to the feeling of well-being when trying beautifully crafted food and wine that massages your taste buds.

Sat in the lovely and carefully managed hotel garden sipping on a glass of martini chatting to my fellow diners, made the stresses and strains of the day melt away. Birdsong filled the warm evening air and the sunlight glowed as I intensely studied the taster menu.

When you look at a menu you’re seeing the chef’s passion and knowledge come through in black and white. Hours of trying and testing new ideas, getting the right combinations together and thinking about the diners experience. The outcome of this careful attention to detail is like an artist working on their canvass, creating a masterpiece that art lovers will devour: with the Executive Chef, David Campbell, as the brains behind this captivating menu.

This was going to be an evening of fine dining – full of new experiences for the taste buds.

With a martini filled mellowness we moved into the classy dining room for the main event. Each course of lovingly created food was to be accompanied by a champagne or wine and the choreography of the service added to the real sense of occasion.

We began the meal with Cucumber Soup with Earl Grey Tea and Cured Salmon, combined with Lime and Nasturtium Leaf. This was a clean and refreshing way to start a deep dive into a wonderful food experience. Freshly made bread, something that makes me very happy, was an additional treat; especially the beetroot bread.

Next came a modern twist on the classic Bath Chaps, a traditional and once locally very popular Bath dish that used a 65-day dry aged middle white pork. This melt in the mouth food was delicious.

Mackerel Tartar with Gentleman’s Relish, Leek Ash and English Sorrel’ followed and was a superb combination of British cooking: clean on the palate and very satisfying.

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I have to declare an interest: I love lamb. For me its the king of meat and I never tire of its taste and texture and always get a large dose of satisfaction and mellowness when its on the menu. So seeing that salt marsh lamb was heading my way created a real sense of anticipation; and I wouldn’t be disappointed. The salt marsh lamb with garden peas and bacon, mint sauce and lamb broth was the sensational star of the evening for me with is luxuriant feeling, each mouthful creating pure and simple pleasure.

Growing up in the 1980s gooseberries were a real favourite and it was so nice to see a classic ingredient, loved by generations, combined with the all round crowd-pleasing and comfort food, the crumble. The gooseberry and elderflower crumble’ didn’t disappoint and was the perfect pud to warm the heart and create that all-round sense of well-being.

We finished the meal with Eves pudding with Somerset Apples, which for me seemed very appropriate, as its my daughters name and I’m a huge fan of English apples. I never used to have a sweet tooth but I have recently got into my deserts and these two, to complete a lovely evening, hit the spot and made me smile inside.

This was an evening of food taken to the next level by a passionate team with a real attention to detail and passion for their craft. The experience of the evening was elevated to something pretty special by the story-telling and love of wine conveyed by the Hotel’s wonderful Head Sommelier, Jean-Marc Leitao. These couple of hours will stay in my food memory bank for a long-time and demonstrates why food is so much more than just the eating.

Available until the end of October this year, The Taittinger Tasting Menu, is £125.00 per person and includes a six-course tasting menu paired with wines and Taittinger Champagnes (the menu is subject to change to incorporate seasonal produce). For more information visit www.royalcrescent.co.uk

Heading for a hillfort

For the last 15 years Solsbury Hill has been part of my life. Looming large in the distance it can be seen from my garden every time I leave the house. Sometimes it can be shrouded in mist and other times it glows in the warmth of the evening sunshine. It’s a view that I never tire of and it always feels so reassuring when I look across to this site of a former hillfort.

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Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day

Standing on the summit of Solsbury you see why it made such a great place to set up home. Over hundreds of years it was a hillfort and you can follow its outline as you walk around, with views across to the Westbury Whitehorse and the rolling Wiltshire countryside to the east and the city of Bath to the west. I’ll often hear the sound of the skylark, a dot in the cloudless sky, or if I’m lucky catch its ascent from ground level.

And now this much loved hillfort is part of a new atlas that for the first time captures all 4,147 hillforts dotted across the landscape of the U.K and Ireland. Over the last 5 years researchers based at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, on this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, have been working to collate a wealth of data about these amazing places. Citizen scientists have also been helping to collect information for this treasure chest of an online resource.

Curiosity driven research projects like this can only enrich our understanding of history and having all of this exciting data in one portable place will help people to digitally connect with those story of hillforts where they live.

The beauty of this research project is that it showcases the whole range of hillforts that can be found in the countryside like pearls on a necklace. It takes you beyond the really well-known and much visited sites and demonstrates how fundamental these places have been to the story of these islands over hundreds of years. Scrolling across the map you get a sense of the density of hillforts in some places, that you’d expect, and how they have played such an important part in our national story.

Each hillfort catalogued in this atlas will have its very own story. Clambering over a hillfort you get a deep sense of connection with the people that lived there transporting you back in time. You start to take in the landscape that our ancestors would have seen, imagining a very different view with woodland dominating the horizon. Hillforts were built with a focus on defence and as you enter one you can see the careful thought that went into the access points.

Hambledon Hill in Dorset, which is now owned by the National Trust, was one of the last occupied hillforts in the UK – with a group called the Clubmen living there during the English civil war in the 17th century. The size and complexity of this place is mind boggling. Now it’s lightly grazed by cattle and home to countless wild flowers and fluttering butterflies.

Though this atlas is all about the celebration of hillforts there are also many challenges for them. Any hillfort situated on the coast is at risk of vanishing into the sea as our coastline begins to slowly erode. And some have also suffered at the hands of the plough over many centuries. For me this atlas is a clarion call for us all to visit these atmospheric places rich in history and wildlife; and we also need to champion them and care for them, so that future generations can immerse themselves in history.

 

 

 

 

 

Volunteer army gets wild

Across the UK there are conservation organisations, large and small, that depend on an army of volunteers to help look after special habitats and create the right environment for species to flourish.

More than ever the natural world needs us to do our bit. In just a couple of generations wildlife has started to really struggle. Barely a week goes by without a new report about the challenges facing nature in the UK and across the globe.

Getting involved in supporting a wildlife organisation by giving up some of your time is a great way to make a real difference. Armies of volunteers are helping to create the space for nature and also helping us to understand what is happening and why.

Working at the National Trust for more than a decade I got a real insight into the important role that volunteers made. From a postman who had catalogued the number of birds at Malham Tarn in Yorkshire for over forty years to people getting involved in surveying a precious coastal site in Dorset.

Groups of volunteers from companies coming in to help with improving habitats and helping to survey the land is a brilliant way to make a real difference.

If regular volunteering can prove a bit tricky in terms of time commitments there are loads of great citizen science surveys  – including the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch, the Woodland Trusts’s nature’s calendar and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count. These really matter in terms of helping wildlife experts understand changes that are happening across the UK.

Volunteering is a wonderful way of giving back to your community and doing your bit to keep our green spaces special.