I don’t know who originally coined the phrase “no two days are the same” but having worked local government comms I can testify that it’s truer than true.
by Ashley Wilcox
Welcome to the world of bizarre local government communications (and I wouldn’t have it any other way).
A world where quick thinking and creativity can grab hold of a potentially negative story and bring plaudits from across the globe. This isn’t about strategic, planned comms (which is the right approach of course) but just a quick reaction, going with your gut feel, being persuasive and just going for it.
On Friday 19 September, I arrived at work in Gravesham Borough Council, a small district in Kent and these issues were facing me:
We have a beluga whale in the River Thames, just off Gravesend, thousands of miles away from his Arctic home.
Our popular and much loved firework event usually attended by at least 15,000 people was now in jeopardy.
The beluga whale – nicknamed Benny by the media – was first spotted in Gravesend on Tuesday 25 September, and has been spotted numerous times swimming strongly and feeding normally, enjoying all Gravesend has to offer its visitors.
Crowds of people and the media have gathered from the river bank to catch a glimpse of Benny who has become Gravesend’s latest celebrity.
As we approach our annual Fireworks night at the Riverside Leisure Area in Gravesend, with the fireworks set off from a barge on the Thames, we consulted with colleagues at the Port of London Authority (PLA) also based in Gravesend.
They said environmental advice on the effects of fireworks on or over the river is that the fireworks would cause disturbance to Benny.
Cancel, postpone or move?
So what do we do – cancel the fireworks and face the ‘Council Killjoy’ headlines – or carry on with them and face a backlash from Benny’s fans?
Of course we knew immediately we had to do something about the fireworks – cancel, postpone or move site were pretty much the only options. And we had to act quickly. We had been promoting the fireworks for some time, and with a big promo in the resident magazine, that had just landed on the doorstep of every home in the borough we had to get this messaging right.
With no inland area able to accommodate the expected 15,000 strong crowd, the decision was made to postpone the fireworks. Of course we have no idea when Benny will leave Gravesend so we cannot say when we can rearrange. So always a danger of people saying we are pulling a fast one and saying postponed rather than cancelled, but decision made and the fireworks are postponed.
We could have issued the usual boring press statement for the locals and popped that on social media. But this was an opportunity too good to miss. Coverage of Benny’s appearance had appeared across the UK media from the BBC to the Metro. It was time to tap into this.
So I decided to create #KeepBennySafe, draft a light hearted press release and create a graphic to hold it all together.
It was essential to show visually that we were doing this to keep Benny safe and well, give some location (alongside the famous Gravesend Town Pier and the statue of Pocahontas, who is buried here in Gravesend )and get that all important council logo in there too.
A bit of a discussion with officers, a chat with the Leader and the Port of London authority and we were good to go.
#KeepBennySafe was the top story in our weekly staff email, released to the media at the same time (our usual contacts plus a long list of media that had already covered Benny’s arrival) and I added some posts to the council’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
And that’s where it all turned into a whale of a time! (Pun intended).
Media coverage has been fantastic and importantly positive. Sky, BBC, Telegraph, Guardian to name just a few covered the story pretty much in our words – all using #KeepBennySafe. The Evening Standard and the Australian ABC news used our graphic.
Of course there was a ‘Damp Squib – Killjoy council axes its annual fireworks display in case it upsets Benny’ headline (which did raise a smile) – but the story was our press release so a positive.
Social went mad for it – shares galore, hundreds of comments – lots of ‘Brilliant decision’, ‘Fantastic news’, to ‘Thank you for caring’, ‘you’ve made the right decision’. Facebook tells us we’ve reached over 145k people with the news. Engagement has been great and we’ve used it to push to other activities such as our visitor offer.
Many interview requests for our Leader, who is fast becoming a whale expert. From local and national radio, to a live on Monday’s Sky news at lunch, the story keeps going. Our Leader is on Talk Radio with Eamonn Holmes this Thursday continuing the Benny chat.
We’ve been tweeting Radio 1’s breakfast host Greg James who asked how Benny was doing and an Australian who has doodled Benny and the hashtag.
So what did we learn from this?
It’s ok to have a bit of fun. We could have just gone for a press statement but being a bit more creative and using some fun elements works.
Being on top of social media and engaging and chatty definitely helped.
We are a small team with a heavy workload and I was aware this would take over but it was definitely worth it. The team has pulled together, been creative and succeeded. Some great work from the team. And it’s been great fun for us all. It’s reminded us why local government comms is great.
But is there such a thing as taking it too far? We’ll let you know after Benny makes a special appearance in our Christmas song video (a cover of the Slade classic Merry Christmas Everybody) when we release it to promote our packed Christmas event programme.
And that’s the end of the novelty comms – back to the strategic after all of this.
Ashley Wilcox is covering the communications manager role at Gravesham Borough Council