a charles dickens of a good campaign

A bit of creative thinking and forward planning led to brather brilliant campaign on popular Victorian author Charles Dickens. Actor Simon Callow came on board too.

by Kelly Harrison

One heady afternoon in July 2011, our press team at the University of Warwick were engaged in an activity we rarely have time to do, ‘forward planning’. Flushed with the success of finding a spare hour to think, we came up with an idea.

We wanted to mark the bicentenary of the birth of one of our greatest authors, Charles Dickens, in February 2012.

We thought a podcast series about his work might be a good idea and approached one of our experts, Professor Jon Mee in English and Comparative Literary Studies.

As we began talking to our academics about our idea and looking at the breadth of research across the University, it soon became clear that we could do much more than just a few podcasts. Working with our in-house digital team we created a Dickens sub site, hosting a range of podcasts, videos, interviews and articles on the life, times and works of Charles Dickens. We involved researchers and students in English, Health and Social Studies, History and Law.

We included external contributors including Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley and BAFTA winning screenplay writer Andrew Davies. We also secured an advance extract of Simon Callow’s book, Charles Dickens and the Theatre of the World.

Not content with that, we looked at all the footage we had and decided to produce the University’s first academic documentary, along with a multimedia ‘Celebrating Dickens’ Mobile App for iPhones and Android devices.

The site was launched in December 2011 with updates in January, February, June, August and December. We also held a screening of the documentary with around 100 guests, including local sixth formers.

To date, more than 11,000 people have downloaded the Mobile App, from 26 different countries. The project is featured on Warwick’s Youtube channel and has over 1000 views. On our iTunesU channel it is Warwick’s top downloaded collection and appears in Apple’s featured content in the Literature category.

There was much frustration along the way, and some wincing when handing in expense forms for filming on location. Dickens once said “an idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it explains itself”. By talking to people across the university and allowing the idea to grow, it became a really exciting and innovative project that I am very proud to be a part of.

You can see the micro site here: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/dickens/ 

What worked:

1)      Opening the topic up as widely as possible to get contributions from departments such as Law and Health and Social Studies. Talking about the life and times of Dickens rather than just focussing on his work gave scope for some really interesting insights into Victorian life.

2)      Bringing in the experts. We could have captured bits of video for the site, but getting our in-house digital team involved meant we had talented professionals filming some fantastic pieces and, of course, without them there would be no documentary.

3)      Encouraging ideas across the team. Making this a communal project for the Communications Office meant there were some great ideas and unexpected suggestions that have really enhanced the material.

4)      Getting external contributors. We got input from a number of external sources including the Dickens family and a screenwriter who had adapted Dickens for the BBC. The project was not just about showcasing the University’s expertise, it was about producing a valuable resource.

5)      Taking the project off site. We took academics down to London to film on location, we filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum and even at Dickens World in Kent. It enthused the academics and made much more engaging viewing than people sat at in offices talking about Dickens.

What didn’t work:

1)      A brief that was, at times, too fuzzy around the edges. Keeping things quite open to encourage ideas did occasionally backfire. You need to be clear about what you want to achieve, a few times we had to encourage people to think less BBC documentary and more academic collaboration.

2)      A Communications Office that didn’t always communicate! It is often easy to forget the basics and sometimes information didn’t get to everyone who needed it. A lesson quickly learned.

3)      Trying to do something on this scale with no set budget. The idea for the subsite evolved quickly and tiny issues like who was going to pay for filming on location etc… should have been sorted out before we were actually on location.

4)      Timescales! In a busy university it is very hard to find availability for filming with the academics. More robust planning in the early stages would have meant less ‘seat of the pants’ moments in the later stages.

5)      Making full use of the available skills in the team would have meant that the task of producing copy and audio would not have fallen on one or two people’s shoulders.

Kelly Harrison is press and communications manager at Warwick University.

Picture credit.



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