Friday, 13 May 2011

Pizza, beer, constipation and a one way mirror - a cautionary PR story

I managed to secure a small bit of editorial for Press Ahead in this week’s PR Week. Admittedly, the story in question isn’t about the most glamorous of topics!

I responded to a tweet from PR Week's deputy editor, asking for stories about working on potentially embarrassing accounts. That took me right back to my first job in PR and my time in London.

PR Week condensed my contribution into one paragraph (about which I have no gripe), so I thought I would share the full story here. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

My first job in PR was at Lynne Franks PR back in the 90s. I started as a trainee, moving from department to department. The first team I worked in (health) looked after the Reckitt & Colman account and I was given the glamorous task of handling PR for digestion related products, including Gaviscon, Fybogel and Senokot. Most of the work involved dealing with trade press and seemed to consist of supplying fairly basic product information and approving colour separation charges (those were the days!) for the printing of photographs to accompany articles.

However, one cold winter evening my account manager packed me off to a women’s consumer focus group in Sunbury on Thames. My brief was to get a better insight into the Fybogel/Senokot consumer – how they felt, what digestive issues they faced, what words and phrases would resonate with them in relation to products etc. I duly rocked up to the venue, where I was ushered into a room with a one way mirror. In my room, to my joy I discovered that I was a) on my own, and b) surrounded by pizza, chips, pasta, burgers and a fridge full of beer. To join Lynne Franks PR, I had taken a significant pay cut (from my challenging, but not lucrative, role as a money lender and debt collector – I kid you not) and more than doubled my rent. So, to be in the presence of so many fine and free vittles was at that time like receiving a Christmas bonus. I didn’t hold back.

On the other side of the mirror was a comfortable looking sitting room around which were seated about 10 women of various ages and sizes. Everything that they said was captured on microphone and piped into my room. Over the next few hours, I was presented with detailed and sometimes graphic accounts of said ladies’ digestive problems. This was illuminating. Every now and again, one of the consumers would leave the room and head to the bathroom. She would return several minutes later. As everyone else in the room turned to her, she would shake her head sadly (“No, I couldn’t do a poo” was what that shake of the head meant). Appallingly, I suspect that I found much of this quite amusing at the time.

At the end of the night, under instruction, I waited until all the ladies had departed and then quietly left (clearly, they either didn’t know I was there or at least assumed that whoever was on the other side of the mirror wasn’t a young bloke). I was new to Lynne Franks and keen to prove myself, so I had made quite a few notes during the session, while scoffing as much stodge as I could, washed down with beer after beer. However, when I re-read my notes in the office the next morning, I think it’s accurate to say that they weren’t as insightful as they could have been.

To be fair, I do believe that I acquired a better understanding of our target consumer as a result of my evening in Sunbury and that was reflected in ongoing PR outputs. Nevertheless, it occurred to me then - and I haven't changed my opinion - that I might not have been exactly the right person for that particular task (notwithstanding the free food and drink that I couldn’t resist!) and that the PR activity would have benefited more if someone else had been volunteered. After my stint in the health team, I soon moved on to ‘mentertainment’, working on accounts such as Puma, Timberland, BT Mobile and Timex. A much better fit, I reckon (and beer was also occasionally involved in that phase of my fledgling career). But I still recall my evening in Sunbury on Thames with great fondness.