Analyzing a Media Campaign: A JCX Case Study

Square One

For four years, I was closely involved with authoring and coordinating JCX's UK PR efforts. PR policy was driven in a manner that is characteristic of Japanese business, i.e. centralized (Doi, 1982; Cathcart, 1982). Company PR was steered by policies that were sometimes ignorant of particular local conditions, so scope for addressing such was limited. The planning, persona, and official activities of PR campaigns took governance from directives issued by a planning board in Tokyo. While this campaign was managed in general accord with these directives, it was subtly crafted to feasible usability by the UK office in order to meet topical peculiarities unacknowledged by directives.

Assessment of Outcomes

Since this campaign focused on image rectification rather than generation, and because its directives were centrally dictated without recognition of location variables (policy was formulated to develop worldwide corporate image rather than reinforce locale-oriented public relations), the objectives prescribed for this campaign were somewhat unrealistic, but through careful manipulation became achievable. This was because achievability in this instance was defined generously and directives were adhered to in spirit whenever they were invalidated by practicability. Were its terms of success defined practically and its methods enforced without leniency, this campaign – due to its limitations and compression of objectives – would have failed. From a PR purist’s perspective, the campaign was weak, being impaired by policy. Nevertheless, because management gauged results in relative terms and could not dictate every necessary activity, the campaign succeeded, despite the PR being in places theoretically unsound and the message conceptually convoluted. Success entailed usage of supplementary methods absent from formal directives and under-recommended by the literature but nevertheless commonplace in effective mainstream PR practice.[1]

Public Reception and Response

Early in the campaign, public response was unexpectedly voluminous. We attributed this more to the dearth of economic good news than to the efficacy of our PR work. Headquarters did not read the situation in similar terms, and cited this unusual response as supportive of what in normal economic climates would likely have proven costly and unproductive practice.

Ahead of the press release dates, discussion of messages posted online had already aired on Radio UKM, and employment inquiries arrived in unexpected numbers. Online seeding was thus worthwhile, as the local press had, more enthusiastically than we predicted, picked up on both Stadium and the product stories. This method lacks official sanctioning, but has harvested interest similarly effectively in previous campaigns. Online seeding sews an informational breadcrumb trail that boosts the reception of well-timed formal press releases. We again observed evidence of this phenomenon in this campaign.

Targeted Media and Their Appropriateness

The targeted media was the local press secondarily and the online audience primarily: the former for raw publicity, mass exposure, and story authentication; the latter for germinating brand awareness in the subset public.

This unconventional prioritizing reflected a growing body of research that indicates digital natives (under 30s) are persuaded most effectively by online information (Prensky 2005) and influenced more by online peers than one-way media (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008).[2]

Newsworthiness

The press stories were newsworthy but probably compromised by cynical timing and crude commercial piggybacking. They were set for release during the slow news period that typifies the summer season, itself inside a wider spell of economic aridity. Their timing thus rings loudly of Machiavellianism, and for this reason, their messages were - or so we thought - likely to be received with skepticism or indifference. The commercial angle was present in both releases (most dominant in the second), and although not obtrusive, was sufficiently visible to be dissuasive. Failings in our own campaigns – along with academic consensus (e.g. Siano, 1999) – inform us that corporate-sourced news is increasingly regarded unfavourably. The corporate name ought to have been omitted, but its inclusion was required to meet the policy directives governing the campaign.

Timing

The timing of all press releases was precisely according to plan, but the calendrical locking (applied for administrative purposes) contradicted several key principles of PR best practice, namely situational responsiveness and informational pertinence (Langford-Wood, 2002; Cornelissen, 2008) and threatened to narrow the campaign’s potential. The release of stories according to a schedule established (more or less) at initiation hinders ad hoc agility, making opportunistic capitalization on unforeseen developments problematic.

Cost

Information on the cost of the campaign is classified and not available to me. At the time of writing, costs were within budget and, to our surprise, the campaign was surpassing expectation in terms of publicity returns. Projections indicated the campaign would conclude satisfactorily, since expenditure was unlikely to overrun and the results yielded to date were positive. The principle measure of this campaign’s value was comparison with the preceding (highly flawed and grossly profligate) campaign. This criterion alone practically ensured the success of even an unremarkable campaign.

Lessons Learnt from Campaign Development

This campaign taught us that when conditions permit, rules can be broken and theoretically dubious PR practice can be productive. This maverick approach is however not to be endorsed without reservation and is feasible only if the stakes are low and the criteria determining success are suitably lenient. We conclude that our campaign succeeded despite its hamstrung planning and methods. Directives and policy were handicapping factors, but local conditions were such that they offset ill-conceived practice: a seam of public interest was there to be mined.

Press Releases

Both press releases followed a formulaic pattern. However, both carried a double message that marks them as unconventional and complicates categorization and their subsequent carriage by the press. It was hoped that journalists receiving these releases would report the main- and sub-story patterning. In all other respects, both releases were orthodox and met the requisite stylistic conventions. The language, while not particularly lively, attained the appropriate register and conveyed its messages without interference. Noise in the form of padding and errors (grammatical or syntactic) was, of course, absent. The voice of both pieces was intentionally moderate and conservative. Injecting character into the voice introduces the danger of “writing up” (exaggeration) and thereby loading the content with an implied third message, namely that of persuasion. Such a voice deters fact-oriented journalists and reads conspicuously as brazen copywriting or advertising, signatures that will relegate the pieces to instant redundancy.

Both articles were purposefully overwritten since it is common for journalists to omit 30 to 50% of a press release’s content (Sligo et al, 2000; Langford-Wood, 2002). In the case of these articles, even harsh editorial reduction would still have left one of the two messages extant.

Corporate Writing

This article, in its language, structure, and messages, was compliant with a long-established control template. Management-targeted material was deemed publishable if its content could be consumed by non-management and externally circulated without threat of negative consequences. Documents or e-mail containing sensitive information were never put into circulation, since experience has demonstrated that anything that is circulated (especially documents marked “Sensitive” or “Management Only”) will be obtained, copied, and distributed by non-intended parties. Defence is therefore through absence of information or transparency. Paradoxically, the reverse tactic was also on occasion employed (though not this time). Earlier, red herring documents falsely marked “Sensitive” were been planted in full knowledge that they will be discovered and “revealed”.[3]

Traces of this practice persist in authentic (non red herring) documents. Since it is common knowledge that other centres in Europe were competing for investment allocation, outright omission of this issue would provoke unhealthy speculation, hence the inclusion and forthright discussion of it in this article. Moreover, reiteration of already known material without due consideration of possibly confounding factors would, we learnt, trigger incredulity and demand for further explanations (an observation also reported by Schön, 1983).

Publication of Articles

The corporate piece was published in its entirety as the opening section of one of four management circulars issued per season. The press releases were subject to formal greenlighting, but online seeding began the moment we asked for comments from the webmaster of the main website for fans of the club whose home ground is the JCX Stadium. Message board activity increased quickly and branch versions of seeded stories appeared on other fan websites. The quantity of related online exchanges elicited queries from the local to national online and print news organisations.

Client Response

Our client (headquarters’ publicity section) expressed satisfaction regarding the progress of this campaign and the publicity it generated. Feedback received suggested that the methods employed were productive. This campaign’s primary objective was the reparation of backfire resulting from the preceding campaign. Because the follow-up campaign finished under budget and reaped modest positive publicity, a successful conclusion was announced.


[1] Such methods were employed when expedient, but the significance of their contribution was always minimized in closure reports. This is because attributing a campaign’s success to other than sanctioned methods could encourage bad practice.

[2] On the proviso that such is performed respectfully and according to the protocol of the medium.

[3] This tactic was used originally to counter staff distrust of messages from management. It exploits the notion that what is secret must be true. Although perhaps unethical, this was a last resort strategy undertaken to defuse staff anxiety concerning possible redundancies. It succeeded where all other methods had failed. Results from experimentation with this method indicated that recipients were capable of distinguishing truth from fiction. Following this observation, all messages transferred by this method were scrupulously honest. Material written ostensibly for management was composed with the certainty of inevitable “leakage” considered. Consequently, management-directed circulars proved the single most efficient means of cross-workforce informational dissemination. We believed this was because they are both perceived to be and are terse and factual.

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