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Deborah Gray Public Relations - PR articles

Edina and Patsy

Edina and Patsy; Sophie and the sheikh; Max Clifford and the kiss 'n' tell girls; Alastair Campbell and his dossiers... Most of the names one thinks of when it comes to PR are hardly the most positive role models for their industry – a trade which could, ironically enough, do with some good PR of its own.

If one were to summon up a single, all-encapsulating image of the PR professional, it would include long lunches, large gins and tonic and larger bills, racked up over lengthy evenings at the Groucho Club bandying chit-chat with contacts. It’s a stereotype that seems rather remote from the hands-on world of composting.

Yet handling the PR for West London Composting, the UK’s largest in-vessel composting facility, and The Composting Company, a leading provider of in-vessel composting solutions, has taught me that good public relations are absolutely critical to the growth of any composting business. Put bluntly? When bad will from neighbours can close your business down or block planning permission for any expansion, it pays to have them on your side.

Community relations is, of course, a thorny topic, and one that leaves the average composting professional fuming with blind rage. The fantasists who persist in detecting odours from half a mile upwind ten days after the council last emptied their wheelie bins. The lunatics who hear imaginary delivery lorries reversing in the night. And the rational, if ill-informed, nimbies who see composting as a malodorous form of waste disposal, rather than a green business which produces a natural, odourless and entirely beneficial product.

Poor community relations are probably the biggest single issue facing the composting industry today. (Some even argue that the reason the UK composts so little of its waste compared to, say, Germany, is down to a lack of public understanding of the nature of the business.) Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, an operator’s waste license may be revoked for creating offensive odours: the burden of proving responsibility for odours lies with the operator, not the complainants. If enough members of the public protest that an operator is making a stink, existing sites will be shut down, and new licenses refused.

PR is the perfect tool to prevent this sort of thing from happening. From proactive crisis management through to day to day good neighbourliness, PR can help a composter transform its standing in the local community.

Like a lot of new composting businesses, WLC faced some challenges due to problems with odour during its first year in operation. The predictable problems with neighbours were exacerbated by its relatively urban location. We worked with them to design and implement a coherent communications strategy that reached out to the community on a range of different levels.

PR's stock in trade is information, so a first stop was to ensure that our information was accurate. WLC invested in a state-of-the-art weather station which can confirm whether a reported malodour is actually emanating from the site. This enabled them to act on problems immediately, and (also important) to instantly rebut unfounded accusations.

To ensure our information would reach the people it needed to reach, we created a dedicated helpline and interactive website with rolling news service. This helped keep concerned residents in the loop, while ensuring that their complaints were heard and responded to at once. In tandem with this, we produce and deliver professional, quarterly newsletters, and hold regular meetings with residents and community groups, alongside environmental stakeholders such as Friends of the Earth.

Possibly the single most important piece of information that any compost brand should own is that composting is a beneficial process. Composting is about manufacture, not waste disposal, and the end result is a fantastic product with practical and environmental benefits.

This message underpinned absolutely everything we did with WLC. We held compost giveaway days, inviting residents to come and collect free bags of compost for their gardens: they came in droves, and local residents receive discounted compost all year round. We regularly arrange tours of the site, so that people can understand what we do, and quite how little malodour is produced.

Perhaps most excitingly, WLC has just completed a learning resource centre, with the support and encouragement of local schools. We have developed a range of educational materials to suit children of various ages, and to help teachers link WLC’s work into the environmental aspects of the national curriculum. The children are consistently fascinated, and leave with a new understanding of the industry.

So, after a challenging start, WLC, a fantastic local business with strong roots in the farming community, is flourishing, and is soon to become Europe’s largest composter. And we’ve helped facilitate that journey – a journey that is all theirs - not by doing anything wildly outrageous, but by doing the very simple thing that PR does best: delivering accurate, on-message information and eliminating misconceptions.

Of course, we also handle the press side of the job. Which is where the lunches come in (I wish!). Good press is an absolutely critical tool for any composting business that wants to grow, particularly on the supply side. And probably the easiest way to ensure your target audience know about your new product is to ensure they read an article about its benefits.

Yes, yes, I hear you cry. But why hire a professional to do that?

The short answer is, you don't have to. You can write your own press release, send it out to a list of magazines, then sit back and wait until it gets published, and the business enquiries come flooding in.

But sadly – and as anyone who has ever spoken to a journalist only to find themselves misquoted, quoted in a different story from the one they had anticipated, or simply not quoted at all – the media, feral beasts as the ex-PM would have it, are not that simple.

Trade journalists typically receive between 200 and 300 press releases per week, while national newspapers receive hundreds more: of these, a staggering 95% goes straight in the bin. Only the magic 5% will go on to generate immediate stories, become part of a larger story, or be put to one side and form ideas for future articles.

There is an art to successfully securing a place among that 5%, and that lies in identifying an interesting and unusual story, and shaping it so that it supports your brand and business objectives, too. Then you need to package it in such a way as to attract a journalist’s attention, and ensure it reaches the people and publications who might be interested.

Punchy headlines, visuals, photography and diagrams can all help make the package more appealing: saggy, overlong, ill-written or uninformative releases will do the reverse. Then there’s the issue of personal, or organisational, taste. Some magazines request press releases via email, others prefer hard copy or faxes. It may sound petty, but it matters.

As with any sales communication, addressing your missive to the right person - not just 'the editor', not just any named journalist, but someone you know will be interested in the story you have to offer – gives you a much better chance of being picked up. And, yes, relationships are key. Picking up the phone and selling your project works infinitely better when you know the people you are selling it to, and have a track record of providing them with good quality leads.

Another element where PR can assist is in managing the conversation with the journalist. The average composter will not need a full-blown media training course to prepare them for a telephone chat. You may simply need to prepare some thoughts, sketch out a few sound bites and decide how to present yourself to make yourself most quotable and expert.

Some general rules? Remember that you are in control of what you say. If you cannot or do not want to answer a question, a simple 'no comment' or 'I will get back to you later with the answer to that' is adequate (practise saying it in a non-defensive manner). If you want to be quoted, keep it short, keep it snappy and – if need be – make it up ahead of time. Many of the best sound bites have practise behind them, so don’t be shy of trying a few out on a fag packet the night before. Then decide what kind of personality you want to put across.

If, however, you are going to appear on TV or radio, unforgiving mediums where you often have a matter of seconds to make your point, you may well require further support. Between unfamiliar environmental details such as lights, sound booms, microphones, cameras and producers counting things off in seconds, and the prospect of a company showcase ending up on the cutting room floor or the managing director stuttering like an amateur to an audience of millions, many business folk opt to practise with a professional first.

In fact, although they are by now seasoned media pros, with appearances on Radio 4, Channel 4, the BBC, ITV and Sky News under their collective belt, WLC and I still work through their key messages before every little bit of radio or TV. We haven’t yet been to the Groucho Club, sadly. But I’m working on it.

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