Back in January, planning for how we would communicate the fifth birthday of the arts centre where I worked seemed pretty simple. We’d have a huge outdoor celebration in May, get a great photographer in to get snaps of crowds outside our iconic building, get a videographer to capture some audience stories that we could use across social, job done.
Then the coronavirus lockdown happened.
Suddenly, the nature of the whole celebration changed. People couldn’t come together physically – only online. And the comms team, not the programmers, were in charge.
First, we had to reconsider our original objective. How much had it actually changed? The birthday was always a celebration of what we meant to the city, and what had been achieved in the last five years. But coronavirus added an extra level of importance – with the building closed and the threat of our audience forgetting why they loved us, we needed to create a powerful sense of longing and affection for the organisation, getting people to talk about what they missed most in order to make them look forward to a time when they can visit again.
It was also an opportunity to take control of who the celebrations were for. It couldn’t be too inward-looking – we wanted to the content to be led by our audience, not just foisted upon them. ‘Audience as advocates’ is an idea I’m obsessed with – it’s only an extension of good old fashioned word of mouth, but it’s the aspect of comms that can most often be overlooked by colleagues looking for a flashy piece of content or a glitzy national feature.
But there also needed to be an integrated campaign to inspire and engage our staff, in a time when the sector faces huge uncertainty and many people are working in isolation at home or furloughed. Our staff need a voice right now more than ever.
And we also needed to take the opportunity to reassert our position in the marketplace. Coronavirus meant dozens – hundreds – of arts organisations were putting all their energies into putting content online. A local competitor had even celebrated a (bigger) birthday just weeks beforehand. We needed to stand out.
The creation of a story hub is an idea I’ve had for ages – a place where various pieces of content with a common purpose can be collected to celebrate something unique or a particular moment for an organisation. It’s based on the idea of special editions of a magazine, and is an example of where having an editorial background can be so useful for comms people. Editorially-driven decision making about content – rather than focusing on a platform, a means of delivery or a sales message – is what sets great content apart from the average.
The first decision to be made was about what would go on there. There were so many ideas thrown around and if we’d tried to create all of them we’d have never been ready in time for the big day. In fact, we wouldn’t even be ready now, several weeks later. We’d have also overwhelmed our audiences and diluted our impact. There needed to be clear curation, led by three key objectives – to showcase what is special about the organisation, to give a voice to real people and to add value that would make our content cut through.
Luckily, we already had lots of audience insight from a brand repositioning project we’d been working on before the pandemic hit. We knew that one of the key things our audience love about us is that we provide expert curation of all three artforms – visual art, film and theatre – that means they can take risks and be curious, safe in the knowledge that they can trust those who are choosing the programme. So when it came to choosing who would provide those retrospectives, it was natural to go to the people who oversee that curation and ask them for their favourite moments of the last five years. It doesn’t matter if you’re a theatre, a university or a manufacturing firm – the comms team should be there to help give your experts a voice, and guide their contributions, not to drown them out. Frankly, no-one cares about the marketing team’s highlights. Objective one achieved.
To make sure there were real voices, we ran a call-out via social media for people to send us their own stories of the last five years, and we were overwhelmed by the response. We were also careful not to forget about the ‘real people’ inside our own organisation, and mirrored our external callout internally through our staff newsletter, gathering colleagues’ stories alongside our audience’s.
By thinking about what our audience missed about us and wanted from us at this difficult time, it was easy to add value – from film recommendations to the recipe for our incredible vegan cinema roll, we wanted to give our audiences something as a birthday gift from us to them. And yes, the cinnamon roll recipe was the most shared piece of content – how did you guess?
Now how to drive as many visitors to it as possible? And here’s where the coronavirus actually presented an opportunity for us. Space on the front page of our website is always at a premium. We host thousands of events per year, and in normal times it would seem unimaginable to replace all of our highlighted events with story tiles. There would be no way to showcase the story hub on the front page as a coherent unit.
But with the building closed, that was no longer the case. Suddenly we had entire section – the ‘Visit Us’ area where we normally showcase our food offer, access and how to book tickets – that was effectively redundant. Working with our web developers we not only came up with a way to switch that section off – preventing confusion for visitors to the website – but also to replace it with a whole new curated section. Suddenly, the in-house team had far greater control over our front page than we had previously. It was so useful, we’re never handing that control back.
The other key aspect was to work with partners across the city. No organisation can exist on its own, we’re all part of a wider ecology, and that’s particularly true in Manchester. Our friends at Marketing Manchester have been running a ‘Manchester Misses You’ campaign since the beginning of lockdown, and they republished our Director’s blog on their Visit Manchester platforms, and other cultural institutions jumped on board to wish us happy birthday on social media. This really highlighted the strength of our informal networks, another aspect of PR that can be too-often overlooked.
Because the campaign was carried out online, we could measure the outcomes easily. Throughout the day there were over 220 tweets wishing us happy birthday, and our own tweets had the highest engagement levels of the 28 day period across all measurements. Instagram and Facebook also had higher-than-average reaction rates, but the best thing for me was that we saw a huge level of conversations started – our audience weren’t only talking to us, but also to each other.
We’ve learned a lot. The key takeaway is that we hope once this lockdown is lifted there won’t be another one, but it was a powerful lesson in the need for comms teams to be flexible and creative, and the importance of never losing sight of your audience and what they need from you at any given moment.
I’m already looking forward to the stories we’ll tell over the next five years…