Eight pieces of crap comms and what we learned from them

The communication industry is traditionally said to be rubbish at its own PR.

But a quick trawl through places like LinkedIn or Twitter these days suggests that’s a myth.

Lots of us- myself included- are good at shouting about the great work we’ve done and patting each other of the back for a job well done. Nowt wrong with that, I’d say.

Perhaps though we could all benefit from a bit more humility from time to time and own up to some of the stuff that didn’t go so well, instead of rewriting history when things go wrong.

Here’s my attempt at doing just that.

Mixed message world cup posters

An oldie but a goodie, this was a partnership campaign to coincide with the 2010 FIFA World Cup. We tried to shoehorn messages about fire safety, domestic violence and alcohol awareness into a single, cliché poster featuring a referee holding a red card. Throw in a glut of logos and you’ve got a turd of a poster which had no measurable impact on any of those issues.

Lesson learned: stick to a single, measurable message

Alexis Sanchez take off falls flat

When Alexis Sanchez signed for Manchester United in 2018 his transfer was announced with a cinematic video of him tinkling the ivories before walking onto a floodlit Old Trafford pitch. Our newsjacking attempt involved mimicking the video and linking it to our own firefighter recruitment campaign. The problem was we were a week late, the Alexis ship had sailed (then sunk) and our video prompted barely a handful of sympathetic retweets.

Lesson learned: if you’re going to jump on a trend, you’d better be quick

Typo prompts poster re-order

We’d been asked to produce some posters to tell our staff about some new operational procedures. Simple enough. Except they arrive. They are massive. And they are adorned with a glaringly obvious typo. Whilst any waste of tax payers money weighs heavy, mistakes happen. We amended the artwork and reordered the posters, never to speak of this again.

Lesson learned: proof everything thrice

Supplier falls short

Public sector procurement exercises often lead to one result- the cheapest bidder wins. Unfortunately, cheaper won’t always mean better and whilst suppliers will often say they can deliver the goods, most will have their own specialisms and areas of expertise. We found out the hard way on a design project. The product fell below our expectations and we ended up having to find another supplier to finish the job.

Lesson learned: find the right supplier for the job (not necessarily the cheapest)

Mugs are for mugs

We ordered some branded mugs to help us launch a set of new staff values and priorities. The problem is, a good mug sticks around longer than people. So whilst people have changed, and our organisation’s priorities have changed with them, the mugs have sat around. No wonder staff get frustrated when organisations change their minds every few minutes (or years).

Lesson learned: stick to a consistent organisational narrative

Takeaway contest goes naff

Educating people about the importance of buying a takeaway on the way home from the pub (as opposed to attempting to cook, which is how lots of fires start) led me to devise a ‘world cup of takeaways’ on Twitter back in the summer of 2018. Will it go viral I thought? Will my face be on the cover or PR Week? No, you’ll just look daft.

Lesson learned: trying too hard to be irreverent and funny rarely works

Context is everything

Putting up posters on fire stations as part of a staff mental health campaign was unquestionably a good thing to do. But feedback from staff suggested the messaging on one of the poster designs had the opposite effect- far from making them think about their mental health, it had the effect of bringing some of their intrusive thoughts to the fore. We responded by switching the posters and thinking more carefully about which posters we put up where in future

Lesson learned: understanding how messages may be received in context is really important

Branding to forget

Busy putting the finishing touches to a creature comforts style video designed to educate people about the risk of electrical fires, we completely forgot to brief a designer on the associated branding for the campaign two days before it was meant to launch. It was a major oversight and probably should have forced us to postpone the launch. We didn’t panic, cracked on and got away with it, thanks to the (speedy) creative genius of a freelance designer. It’s a mistake we don’t plan on repeating though.

Lesson learned: don’t panic and the good will out

Alex Mills is Corporate Communication Manager at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue


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