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It’ll be all right on the night

One proven way to demonstrate your strong ties to the local community is to stage a successful event. You can usually cover your costs, and the occasion can help you to position and build your brand. Just don’t rely on the weather! Andrea Kirkby talks to some local publishers about their approach to events.

By Andrea Kirkby

Local newspapers are increasingly extending their reach into other media. And that includes not just the internet, but books, broadcasting, and event management.

Regional newspapers have always had a strong presence at local shows and carnivals – not just reporting on them, but also sponsoring them, providing publicity and handing out newspapers and goody bags. But many local papers have also created and funded their own events, picking up some aspect of the local community and putting it in the spotlight.

All shapes and sizes

One thing that's immediately apparent from looking at successful events is the diversity of themes and event types that work. For instance, the Western Morning News organised the Great South West Walk – a walk including the whole of the south west coast, which raised funds for the RNLI, Macmillan Cancer Support, and Wooden Spoon (a charity for disadvantaged children).

The Wolverhampton Express & Star organises the Spotlight Awards, which take local entertainment and nightlife as their theme; while Get Welsh in Swansea, a South Wales Evening Post promotion, highlights local food and drink producers. Slightly different again is the Dorset Echo's People Awards event, focused on community values, with categories such as Teacher of the Year and Volunteer Worker.

Marie Burnett, newspaper sales and marketing manager at the Dorset Echo, believes a successful event needs to pick up on some aspect of local community life. She says, "We felt we needed to do something to recognise what local people were doing." Without this commitment to the local community, she believes, an event can't succeed long term.

Why do events?

Few of these events seem to have been set up with precise, quantifiable objectives in terms of copy sales or financial contribution. Marie Burnett admits that the People Awards had "no mission statement" as such – though there was a definite agenda to associate the newspaper with good news. "Some people think the local paper just reports the bad stuff," she says – "we want to celebrate the good stuff."

In the same way, the South Wales Evening Post, with its strapline "At the heart of all things local", felt it should be doing things that prioritised the local community. Paul Jenkins, newspaper sales director, says, "there's been a rash of out of town developments, and we were quite keen to be seen supporting the Swansea city centre." There was already a successful French food fair in the city, and so a Welsh food fair seemed a good next step. Besides, he says, the paper has a strong farming community in the west of its area, and felt it could provide much needed support for this area through the event.

The objective for the Wolverhampton Express & Star was set from the editorial side. Readership research found that readers were looking for more information on night life and entertainment for the weekend ahead. Beefing up the relevant sections in the newspaper was a first step, but Viv Birch, head of promotions, says, "we wanted to do something else that reinforced that, and created a feelgood factor." The Spotlight Awards were the result, and have introduced a real 'glam' factor to the paper.

Measuring success

35,000 votes were registered this year, so the event has certainly got the public involved. With total circulation at 140,000, that represents a quarter of all purchasers of the paper voting for categories including best pub, club, and entertainment venue. And, in terms of achieving its objectives, Viv believes the event has performed well - "It's about raising the profile of the paper, and giving people an excellent day out."

That's not the only event the Express & Star organises – it also runs a Jobs Career and Training Event. Here, again, the objective is a qualitative one, and the event relates directly to major issues in the local area. "We know the region is underskilled," Viv Birch says, "so we didn't want to create just a jobs event."

Measuring qualitative objectives is not an exact science – and there aren't necessarily any easy ways to put a figure on their impact. Voting numbers in competitions are one way of measuring the effect of an event; attendance figures are another. Paul Jenkins says that the police estimated some 12-15,000 attended Get Welsh in Swansea – but there may well have been more, as people 'flitted' into and out of the event, says Paul Jenkins. Still, he says with a laugh, "ABC aren't going to audit it", so he's relatively relaxed about the vagueness of the measure.

Not about money

Few of these events are intended primarily to make money – they are branding exercises, which in most cases break even or make a small profit. Viv Birch says of the Spotlight Awards, "we do make some money out of it, but not much." However, she says, the other two events organised by the paper are more profitable – and intended to be so.

No one is losing large amounts of money on their events. Get Welsh in Swansea, for instance, made a small profit. Paul Jenkins says, "We would have done it even at a loss, but if we'd made a big loss, we probably wouldn't be going to repeat it."

In fact, a small profit represents a thoroughly creditable performance given the fact that the newspaper decided to buy rather than rent the booths and marquees for the fair. That investment put a dent in finances, but has left the paper with valuable assets for future events. Stephanie Draper, promotions manager at the South Wales Evening Post, confirms that "Get Welsh was quite a revenue generator for us."

Marie Burnett says that the Dorset Echo People Awards is washing its face financially. "The first year it made a little bit of money, the second year it just broke even," she says; "It all depends on the sponsorship." That can differ from year to year.

In terms of copy sales, few newspapers appear to be measuring the effect of these events scientifically, but in most cases the impact seems to have been positive. Paul Jenkins says there certainly were good increment sales of the special supplement for Get Welsh in Swansea, so there was some financial benefit to the newspaper besides strengthening its branding. And Marie Burnett claims that the Dorset Echo added a couple of hundred copies with the picture supplement that followed the People Awards - "which for a paper with a circulation of 18,800 is not bad".

What makes a good event?

So, what are the critical factors for success? One, says Paul Jenkins, is simply not to compete with existing events. That's why Get Welsh in Swansea was designed as a spring or autumn event. "We wouldn't consider running something like this in the summer", he says, "as it would clash with the big farming shows." Newspapers that create me-too events will probably fail; creating something distinctive and new is crucial.

Strong liaison with the editorial side is also vital. "We try to complete the circle", says Viv Birch; the Express & Star devoted a big spread to the event on the website and in the paper, as well as shooting video coverage. "Our editor backs us up a hundred percent – that's why we succeed."

Editorial liaison

She points out that as a privately owned paper, the Express & Star may do things a little differently from many of the larger groups. "As promotions manager", she says, "I sit alongside the editor." So promotions like the Spotlight Awards are not just an add-on, they're part of the editorial schedule.

Marie Burnett believes the event team needs to have someone on it who is tasked specifically with editorial liaison – otherwise it tends to become an afterthought, and the event will suffer. She points out that though the People Awards only took four months to set up, "we had a dedicated team of people working on the event", including managers in charge of editorial liaison, sponsorship, radio time, and event management.

Choosing the right partner

Links with other businesses are also critical. Many events are run in partnership with radio companies, though television companies appear to be strangely absent. For instance, Dorset Echo's People Awards are run in partnership with Wessex FM, giving publicity for the awards greater reach than either the newspaper or the radio station could manage on their own.

Viv Birch points out that the Express & Star's partnership with Heart FM for the Spotlight Awards delivers other benefits too. The radio station comperes the show, providing a high level of professionalism in the presentation. The venue for the awards, the Civic, Wolverhampton, is a third partner, making the event very cost effective.

Sponsorship from local businesses is also important. Viv Birch says that while the Spotlight Awards are relatively cheap to run, the Best of the Black Country business awards are much more expensive, with 500 people to dine, and keynote speakers for past years including Sebastian Coe. "We have to get in a lot of sponsorship before we can go ahead with it," she admits – so the package has to be attractive, and to be sold effectively.

Fortunately, the Express & Star seems to have a deft hand at salesmanship - "This is our seventh year, and we've still got four of our original sponsors," Viv Birch boasts.

Government as well as business can be a strong sponsor. Get Welsh in Swansea, for instance, was strongly supported by the local council.

What can possibly go wrong?

Although these papers have had a positive experience of managing their own events, there are a few war stories. Events management is certainly not for the faint hearted – and attention needs to be paid to every detail.

Stephanie Draper says Get Welsh was tightly organised, and things went as expected apart from one thing - "The rain!"

And Viv Birch admits things can get tricky at the last moment. This year, she says, "We had more organisational challenges than we've ever had before, with last minute changes." One award winner didn't turn up - and it rained. (Though the sun came out just in time, and the red carpet hadn't been completely ruined.)

For awards ceremonies, one of the big issues is secrecy – in some cases, finalists aren't even told they have made it to the finals, and of course the identity of the winners must never be let out of the bag. Marie Burnett says, "the biggest issue we had was just making sure peoples' names were spelt right, while we were still keeping the whole thing a secret from the finalists." A cheque for one of the winners actually had to be rewritten after it was found that the name was wrong.

One thing that is interesting is that few promotions managers seem to have a view on whether such events will increase in popularity, or decline – or on major trends in the sector. No one is really thinking of these events in such terms; they're simply looking to fill in where other exhibitions and events leave a gap. Compared to internet development or circulation boosting strategies, few newspapers seem to be looking at what their peers are doing in this area. Most events, therefore, are created opportunistically rather than as part of a deliberate strategy.

Marie Burnett, however, does say, "I believe this kind of event (People Awards) will become more important – an event like this shows you're willing to get involved in the local community." She believes strongly that local newspapers have to do more than just produce news – whether in print or on the web – to involve themselves in the lives of their readers.

In for the long haul

There's certainly some evidence that once events have been set up, they can establish substantial longevity. The Spotlight Awards, for instance, are now in their third year, and the Best of the Black Country Business Awards in their seventh. One-off or time-limited events like the Great South West Walk appear to be in the minority.

Of course, there are good business reasons why a regular event is generally better for the paper. Set-up costs can be amortised over a number of years. Paul Jenkins says that, right from the start, "we wanted to create an event that was sustainable for years to come." And he points out that the Get Welsh in Swansea model can be used in other towns in the paper's circulation area – perhaps running Get Welsh fairs in Carmarthen and Neath – further spreading the initial costs across different events.

Some papers have also established a bundle of different events. The Wolverhampton Express & Star has three annual events, and the Dorset Echo has run a talent competition, Bridport Has Talent, in partnership with the reopened Electric Palace in Bridport, as well as the People Awards. Once the initial expertise in event management has been established, it's not difficult to add further events, each one prioritising a different aspect of the newspaper's coverage.

That just leaves one question for newspapers to answer. Should you organise your own events, or sponsor other people's? After all, one could argue that newspapers' core business is the reporting of news, and they shouldn't try to make news themselves.

Viv Birch is a great believer in newspapers creating their own events. She says firmly, "we like to be in control – we really like to create our own events, and take ownership of them." And she believes that, because newspapers have a good feeling for their local communities and the issues that affect them, they are very well placed to set up events of real local relevance.

On the other hand, Marie Burnett says the Dorset Echo is happy to be a sponsor of events organised by another group. For instance, the paper is the main sponsor of local business awards, which are organised by Dorset Business (the Dorset Chamber of Commerce and Industry), and also acts as an advisor, and prints the entry forms for the awards in the newspaper.

Marie says, "we would never try to take over someone else's idea – we'll try to offer as much media support as we can. We'd only run our own event if no one else was doing it – if we felt it needs to be done, to recognise the local community."

There's no doubt though that, where there is a gap in the market, newspapers are doing a great job of organising their own events. The costs and the risks appear to be relatively low, while the benefits to the newspaper can be considerable. In particular, a well thought out promotional event can put the newspaper where it ought to be – right at the heart of its local community – and it's an excellent opportunity to interact directly with readers, and find out what they're thinking.