What about 'National Gay Hedgehog Week'?

Awareness
campaigns have become the bane of features editors. Linda Jones asks,
as events get stranger, if it’s worth saving these affairs

DO YOU TAKE any notice of
awareness days, weeks or months? When a charity or company’s PR
contacts you with details of their latest profile-raising exercise, do
you immediately drop everything to file copy on their upcoming event?

No, I thought not.

So what’s the point?

In America there
are some weird and wonderful dates that haven’t yet reached these
shores – including Someday We’ll Laugh About This Week, Air
Conditioning Appreciation Day and Cow Appreciation Day.

In this
country, while we haven’t quite plumbed these ridiculous depths, we are
being continually bombarded with news of more “special” dates in the
calendar designed to boost awareness for good causes or raise profits
for ambitious marketing departments.

We’ve just missed National
Continence Week (held mid-September) and Gut Week, held back in July,
focusing in part on constipation. These are both obviously serious and
distressing conditions that are worthy of closer inspection – but is an
awareness week really the way to go about it? And are the respective PR
departments’ expectations of what can be achieved realistic?

Mind
you, having just witnessed the passing of Yummy Mummy Week – endorsed
by the BBC’s Alice Beer no less, a mother of two-year-old twins –
perhaps there’s hope for them yet.

Events in October include a
day to ‘celebrate horses’, called Hoof it for Horses, on 1 October,
World Smile Day on 7 October and Apple Day on October 21. Bug Busting
(head lice) Day is October 31 and International Herpes Week also starts
on Halloween.

The whole of October has also been deemed Breast
Cancer Awareness Month, Tuberous Sclerosis Awareness Month, Black
History Awareness Month and Bear Necessities Month – organised to raise
funds for mistreated bears across the world.

Despite this crowded calendar, for the people behind the initiatives, it’s not all bad news.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an example of a campaign that does what it says on the tin.

Christina
McGill, head of communications at Breast Cancer Care, says her
experience is very positive, with the media continuing to be “very
receptive” to well-targeted and thought-out stories that don’t rely on
the month itself as the “hook”.

And apparently it’s not all about media coverage.

She
says: “The reason behind such a campaign is to help focus people’s
minds on our objectives, and it provides a useful context to the
service we offer.

“The awareness month helps generate fundraising activity, especially with corporate partners.

“We’ve also found that celebrities are more willing to get involved knowing that we are working on a major event.”

Another highly successful campaign this year was Veterans’ Awareness Week, falling midway between VE Day and VJ Day in July.

The
week, which was supported by the Queen and Prince Charles, captured the
imagination of news planners as it paid tribute to the men and women
who fought for their country.

However, another ‘campaign’ jostling for space in the same week was deemed disappointing by the team behind it.

The
PR crew at the Twins & Multiple Births Association (Tamba), a small
charity serving around 5,000 families in the UK, admits there has been
a marked decline in interest in its own awareness week, held each July.

This
year was especially difficult because of other more high-profile events
(such as Live8) and the terrible breaking news of 7 July.

Helen
Smith, who has worked on media material for the charity, says: “This
year was disappointing for reasons out of our control. We didn’t get
the coverage we’ve enjoyed in previous years.

“We plan and
contact journalists in plenty of time, but when the biggest news story
of the year breaks on the day your piece was earmarked for publication,
there’s nothing you can do.

“We’ll be reassessing our strategy
for next year. We have always targeted editors with specific case
studies and mentioned that it’s Twins Triplets & More Week; perhaps
it’s time to miss that last bit off?”

She adds: “There has been a
reduction in the amount of attention given to awareness weeks. It’s
been bubbling under for a while, but now it’s become a joke as more
ridiculous stunts are dreamt up.”

For Lucy Jolin, a freelance
health and food writer, hardly a week goes by without her being
contacted with details of yet another campaign.

She says: “‘Awareness’ is such a nebulous concept.

What does it actually mean? How do we measure it?

“Is
there any evidence at all, for example, that encouraging people to sit
in baths of custard, run around in novelty underpants, wear customised
jeans to work or hold tea parties actually helps those at risk to
recognise the signs of, say, cancer?

“How many lives does it
save? It may raise money, but then why call it an ‘awareness’ week? One
editor I know just won’t use stories linked to awareness days or weeks
any more. She says they’re too boring.

“Awareness weeks that are simply marketing campaigns are very annoying.

“To
be fair, there are some very good PRs and charities out there who take
the trouble to find out your lead times and exactly what you want. I’d
single out the Prostate Cancer Charity and the people behind Group B
Strep Awareness Week, which ends on 2 October, as professional people
who have taken pains to ensure they are not wasting my time, and have
come up with some excellent case studies.

“But mostly I am
offered lame case studies that have already appeared elsewhere, and to
make things worse, I’m offered them only a week before the awareness
event. I work mainly for women’s weeklies and monthlies, which have
lead times of months and more. Our lead times aren’t a secret – they
can be quickly established through a phone call or email, if not common
sense.”

Nick Pyke, deputy features editor at the Mail on Sunday,
is frank and dismissive when it comes to discussing the impact of
awareness campaigns on gaining column inches.

He says that they
have no influence whatsoever over news editors and that he wouldn’t
take a story from a freelance or PR that offered up such a ‘peg’.

Perhaps
what’s called for is a ‘Say Yes to Awareness Campaigns’ week – it’s
certainly a cause in need of some major positive coverage.

Linda Jones is a freelance journalist

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