On 10 July 2018, I pulled up in a cab outside CIPR’s headquarters in Russell Square, London. There was a crowd outside, including quite a few of my colleagues.
I thought for a moment that the fire alarm might have gone off.
However, rather than shuffling awkwardly from side to side, as is tradition during fire drills, everyone was gazing skyward at one of the most spectacular sights ever to pass over the city.
A huge flypast of 100 aircraft, ranging from historical Spitfires and Hurricanes to modern Tornadoes and Lightnings, zoomed past on their way to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen awaited.
Yet the Royal Family weren’t the only people waiting for the flypast. An astonishing 70,000 people were lining the Mall. The aircraft overhead were accompanied by 1,300 serving men and women marching down to the palace to the sound of roaring crowds.
The flypast, the huge crowds and the four hours of BBC coverage were all part of the largest PR campaign in the history of the British military (in total, it reached around 150 million people via broadcast and print media).
Named RAF100, it celebrated the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force.
“To hear the response of the crowd as we marched up the Mall, and to hear the cheers as the aircraft flew over – it raised the hairs on the back of your neck,” recalls Group Captain Nick Bayley, the officer in charge of the campaign.
While the capstone event of 10 July will live long in the memory, it was just one strand of a communications plan that included more than 400 events throughout the country and the RAF’s first-ever influencer marketing campaign.
THE SCALE OF THE CHALLENGE
Emma Mouchet, RAF100 senior campaign manager, was seconded from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to oversee the campaign. Her first task was to get a grip on the sheer scale of the task.
With hundreds of events taking place – from taking aircraft into inner cities to STEM fairs in schools – the priority was to keep all PR activity on message, so the team developed a toolkit for organisers.
Developed with agency partner Engine, this toolkit included a clear steer on the types of messages that each team should be aiming for, along with some pre-approved quotes, images and a press-release template.
“We were able to say ‘Here’s your toolkit; off you go’, as we knew that consistency would be there,” says Mouchet. “It’s an amazing toolkit. When I look at it, I’m incredibly proud. It encapsulates everything RAF100 wanted to achieve.”
The toolkit was built around the campaign’s three communications aims: commemorate, celebrate and inspire.
First, the campaign needed to commemorate historic moments that the RAF had been involved with, emphasise the role that the RAF has played in shaping UK history, and honour the contribution of veterans. This strand of the campaign kicked off with a commemorative event on 1 April 2018 at the site of Hotel Cecil, the first RAF HQ.
Second, the campaign had to recognise what the RAF of today is doing. It needed to showcase the success that the RAF has had in military operations and the diversity of its workforce.
Last, RAF100 needed to inspire a new generation of supporters, to encourage them to be a part of its future. It was this aim that saw the RAF embrace new comms techniques – and it was also, says Bayley, the “most challenging”.
INSPIRING A NEW AUDIENCE
To reach a new audience, the RAF needed research and an open mind.
Early on, the team committed to undertaking audience analysis, including looking at how Generation Z consumes media and information. Populus polling identified that 16- to 24-year-olds, females and members of the BAME communities “did not understand the RAF particularly well”.
“This research was a new initiative for the RAF,” says Flight Lieutenant Peter Lisney, a Chartered PR professional in the RAF Reserves. “In 2016, a new job was created for evaluation and insight.
It was a major step forward for the RAF to realise we needed to refresh our understanding of our audience and how to connect with them.”
Bayley adds: “Not surprisingly, we came to the conclusion that we had to do things differently to reach a new demographic. We couldn’t continue to push out information via traditional media, television and radio channels.”
The team decided to work with social media influencers for the first time. Bayley explains: “We took creative risks in this. I had to convince the senior echelons of the RAF to reach out to these individuals, and that success is not necessarily appearing in The Times or The Telegraph.
An influencer campaign would help RAF100 be even more specific in its targeting and measures of success, because of the data available about users. “With a documentary, we might hit five million views and our audience would have been aged between eight and 88. Analytics can help us speak to who we need to and tell us exactly who we reached,” says Bayley.
That said, choosing the right influencers was crucial. Originally, given the RAF’s nature, plan A was to find video bloggers with an interest in STEM and fitness.
It was here that the benefits of audience analysis played a key role. The data showed that some mainstream bloggers had followers the RAF needed to reach, so video bloggers like Joe Sugg, Alfie Deyes and Oli White were approached.
“These bloggers have huge reach and understand their audience, which includes young people and females, even though they’re not representing a female in front of the camera,” Mouchet explains.
The influencers were granted unprecedented access to the RAF, with free rein to tell the story of what they saw, provided they didn’t give away any state secrets. Their experience included rides with the Red Arrows, visits to bases and behind-the-scenes tours with service personnel.
“There was an element of nervousness,” recalled Mouchet. “It’s lifestyle blogging. To a professional organisation, that [activity] can be quite jarring when you’re used to things being clear and robust. But I liked that. It portrayed the RAF in a different way and that was really beneficial to the campaign.”
The influencers were clearly impressed with what they saw. Those who usually produce very short pieces went beyond their usual three or four minute clips.
Alfie Deyes, who has four million YouTube subscribers, produced a 20-minute film: it reached more than five million people and had click-through rates far above government benchmarks.
These weren’t just meaningless clicks. The data available has allowed the team to begin to understand who they reached and how well those followers engaged with the content.
That measurement will be vital to making this work stick. RAF100 was a groundbreaking piece of work for the Royal Air Force, involving considerable resources. To convince the top brass to continue with modern professional comms tactics, the campaign must be proven a success.
“We have to remember we were really in the vanguard with this particular piece of work,” says Bayley. “We are very keen to continue to have a two-way dialogue, which is very different for us. It’s not about pushing information out; it’s about talking to the audience and allowing them to understand that it’s their RAF too.”
Despite the social media fanfare, it’s still hard to beat the memories of 10 July, as Mouchet recalls: “When the event had concluded, I was walking through London with a couple of my colleagues in uniform and a black-cab driver pulled over, rolled down the window and said: ‘Good job, mate – you do us proud.’ My colleagues walked so tall that day.”
Crowds of people, hundreds of international journalists and even YouTubers cheering on the RAF? For Lisney, demonstrating the value of PR has made all the hard work worthwhile: “Seeing the RAF come together and believe in the value of professional communications – across the board, from the most junior recruit to the senior leadership team – that’s the most memorable thing for me.”
This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q4 2018.
All images Crown Copyright.