Corporate communications

It’s time to celebrate

Celebrating memorable anniversaries can help organisations build employee advocacy and bolster stakeholder relations

There’s nothing like a birthday party to bring people together but everyone knows that it takes a lot of planning to pull off something truly memorable. Corporate anniversaries are no different. They are not all about candles and cake (though, more often than not, they are still involved).

Two years ago, Transport for London celebrated the Year of the Bus, dedicating its calendar to a programme of events that would celebrate 60 years of the iconic red Routemaster, 75 years since the launch of its predecessor, the RT-Type bus, and 100 years since hundreds of London buses were sent to the Western Front as ‘battle buses’, carrying soldiers to the front line and doubling up as ambulances and mobile pigeon lofts alike.

Dan Maskell, head of press desk at Transport for London (TfL), who ran the campaign, says the Year of the Bus came from a ‘desire to recognise the huge contribution buses make to the city’. Twice as many people use the bus than the Tube in London every year.

‘Buses have a really rich heritage, from the vehicles themselves to their design,’ Maskell explains. ‘It is very important to look at what we’re doing now and what we’re going to be doing in the future.’

The campaign built on success of the London Underground 150th celebrations in 2013. A number of connections made at that time were rejuvenated for the Year of the Bus, such as LEGO, which unveiled a 100,000-brick bus stop outside the world famous toy store Hamleys on Regent Street.

The LEGO bus stop was installed the day before a cavalcade of almost 50 buses, ranging from the earliest horse drawn model of the1820s to today’s Routemaster, made their way from Albert Embankment to Regent Street, which was closed to traffic.

More than 400,000 people attended the celebration, where they were entertained by free activities, such as theatre performances of the children’s book Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus and LEGO-hosted workshops, where children could build their own bus stops.

The event had a knock on effect: retailers along Regent Street experienced a 15 per cent increase in takings. ‘We had a massive Twitter reaction to the LEGO bus stop: the top 20 tweets alone reached over four million people,’ says Maskell.

His statistics show that nearly one in five Londoners were aware of the LEGO bus stop, whilst 15 per cent of Londoners were aware of the cavalcade. Seven per cent claim they attended.

The advantages of celebrating for Transport for London were numerous. Not only did it gain more than 600 pieces of positive or balanced news coverage in the UK alone, from publications ranging from The Guardian to City AM, but customer satisfaction also hit an all-time high of 87 per cent.

Additionally, it managed to raise almost £15,000 for charity from a series of internal events, where families of 24,500 staff who work on the buses were invited to garage open days across the city.

These were hosted by the bus companies that are contracted by TfL, such as Stagecoach, and allowed family members to go behind the scenes, ride on buses as they went through their washes and to view and ride on vintage models.

Other activities launched by TfL in the Year of the Bus included a bus stop photography exhibition, with photographer Juergen Teller’s work displayed on the tops of bus shelters, a sculpture trail of miniature buses around London, which were then auctioned off to raise £100,000 for charity, and a pop-up restaurant created at Design Junction featuring digital bus information boards displaying social media messages, bus stop flags and vintage photography of bus workers from TfL’s archives.

‘London Transport Museum was an essential part of the Year of the Bus,’ says Maskell. ‘It was a partnership with them.’ Curators at the museum helped Maskell and his team learn ‘an awful lot about the buses’, right down to finding old tickets and other lost items tucked down the back of seats on a heritage bus.

TfL also worked closely with the museum to restore one of the famous Battle Buses that travelled to the Western Front in 1914. It was rebuilt by specialist craftsmen, many of whom had come out of retirement, including a World War Two veteran in his 90s.

‘It was almost like a group of guys had come together for one final restoration,’ says Maskell. A Battle Bus also recreated the journey that it would have made, visiting the Bus House cemetery in Ypres, Belgium, named after an old farmhouse whose name itself derived from an old London bus that broke down in No Man’s Land in 1914.

But Maskell is keen to point out that nostalgia was not the only focus of the Year of the Bus. Transport for London also used the opportunity to showcase its bus systems’ technological advancements, including trialling free Wifi on two of their buses and installing a CCTV feed that alerts people as to how many seats are available on the top deck.

‘People are always interested in anniversaries, particularly with Transport for London. We wanted to have a wide appeal to all ages and sexes and promote what we did [in the past] but also what we’re doing now. We didn’t just want it to be rear-looking. We wanted it to look forward too.’

No stranger to commemorating important anniversaries themselves, Historic Royal Palaces also celebrated a huge milestone last year when Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry VIII, turned 500. Similar to TfL’s calendar of events, Historic Royal Palaces launched a large scale programme of events to commemorate the beginning of Cardinal Wolsey’s rebuilding of the palace.

Hampton Court was featured throughout the media, including in a one-off episode of BBC’s The One Show, broadcast from the palace, and on BBC News, which documented a huge party held over the Easter weekend.

The party was a sell-out, a hard feat for a late night event in Surrey held over the Easter period, according to Laura Hutchinson, media and PR manager at Historic Royal Palaces, who led the events. It featured a five-tier cake, celebrating each century of the palace’s existence, and a banquet prepared in the Tudor kitchen, complete with live period music.

Actors performed stories from the palace’s history throughout the day while the celebrations culminated in a 25 minute light show, taking ‘visitors on a kaleidoscopic journey through Hampton Court’s past’.

Our purpose as a communications team is two-fold. We want to elaborate on moments in the palace’s history – I always say that PR is a channel for communicating history, not advertising – but we also want to encourage people to visit us

‘We wanted to bring out stories from different eras of the palace, not just the Tudors,’ says Hutchinson. ‘We work with a team of curators who are always doing new research to bring out some of the sides of the palace that people don’t really see.’

Journalists from national newspapers were invited to see the palace’s Georgian ‘Grace and Favour’ apartments, which housed individuals and families that worked for the crown or state. Known as the ‘quality poor-house’, this area of Hampton Court is not open to the public but Hutchinson’s media campaign brought the era to life for an external audience.

‘The media do write about anniversaries,’ says Hutchinson. She refers to it as a ‘virtuous circle’; the media are interested in historical developments, Historic Royal Palaces do the research and provide them with a story and, in return, get media coverage.

Hutchinson estimates that it takes at least one year to put together an appropriate programme to celebrate major anniversaries. ‘We look at our plans and see where we can add value,’ she adds. ‘Our purpose as a communications team is two-fold. We want to elaborate on moments in the palace’s history – I always say that PR is a channel for communicating history, not advertising – but we also want to encourage people to visit us.’

It is important to the Historic Royal Palaces that, as much as it focuses on the past, it also looks to the present and future. As part of the 500th celebrations, thousands of young people were recruited to contribute drawings to an animated film covering the history of Hampton Court. The result Royals, Rascals and us, is a five-minute long child’s eye view of the palace’s history.

‘It is important to be seen as a forward-thinking, flexible and creative organisation,’ notes Hutchinson. Visitor figures to Hampton Court last year are still being calculated, but as far as Hutchinson is concerned, it was a very good year, especially in terms of media interest. ‘The amount and variety of coverage we got, it was fantastic,’ she says.

The Scout Association is currently experiencing its own wave of media coverage as it celebrates 100 years of Cub Scouts. It launched the Cubs’ centenary year with a sleepover event at London Zoo for 44 children and 22 adults, representing every region in the UK, allowing them to meet the animals face-to-face and have an exclusive tour of the zoo by night.

The story has since been featured on BBC News, which ran segments on its breakfast and evening shows, and on ITV, where the story was tailored to respective regions.

‘Millions and millions of people will have seen it,’ says Simon Carter, head of media relations at the Scout Association.

The news was accompanied by archival footage, including that of a young Prince Andrew during his time as a Cub Scout, and the Scout Association also published a Buzzfeed article on the platform’s community site called 16 surprising facts about Cub Scouts. ‘It’s not about one size fits all,’ recognises Carter. ‘It’s the same message, applied differently.’

The message for the Scout Association is that Scouting changes lives and that it needs volunteers. Around ten million people in the UK have been Cubs at some point, including chef Jamie Oliver, the late David Bowie and current Chief Scout Bear Grylls.

‘We have 100,000 volunteer staff,’ says Carter. ‘We have a carefully crafted communications plan just for them – they’re part of the story. It’s about focusing an effective communications strategy and showcasing what we do to attract adult [volunteers] and bring more people in. Our volunteers can change the world.’

The centenary celebrations follow the Scout Association’s wider centenary in 2007, which was also led by Carter. He says the team learned lots of lessons from that campaign, which centred around the World Scout Jamboree, when 40,000 Scouts from practically every country in the world came together for ten days to camp together, learn about different cultures and live in peace.

‘[It was] frightening,’ admits Carter. ‘I remember just dealing with the Foreign Office to sort out visas for countries, including places as far-reaching as Burkina Faso.’

The jamboree was the summer pillar of a programme that lasted a year. The Cubs Scouts’ centenary will follow a similar chain of events, ending with a Promise celebration in which 150,000 Scouts will remake their Scout promise in unusual places featuring local landmarks.

‘We know what works and what doesn’t,’ says Carter. ‘We pick four or five things and do them really well. We want to pick something that will appeal to many audiences and meet different landscapes.’

Whereas the focus for any communications around the Scouts is largely recruitment, celebrating an anniversary is very different for a B2B organisation, such as Mace. The building company celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.

‘We learnt a lot of lessons [from our 20th anniversary celebrations] and it generated a lot of goodwill,’ says Danielle Regan, head of marketing and communications at Mace. ‘But we didn’t really look at our key messaging as part of a wider campaign.’

Though clients were impressed by the 20th celebrations, when it came to deciding whether to celebrate the 25th, Regan and her team decided to look at the business case around it. Mace had changed significantly over the intervening years, with the launch of a foundation charity as well as a new chief executive and strategy.

‘We thought it was a really good time to stop and celebrate, to showcase the breadth and depth of what we do’ asserts Regan.

On the first day back at work last year, employees were greeted with an email from chief executive Mark Reynolds, reminding them of the anniversary year and the exciting things to come. These would include a LEGO building competition, where staff were encouraged to recreate famous constructions built by Mace.

‘I was amazed by the level of dedication,’ laughs Regan, as employees from the technical teams through to the board worked after hours to recreate iconic structures such as the UK’s first urban cable car Emirates Air Line and The Shard.

The competition brought unexpected benefits. More than 336,000 LEGO bricks from the competition were subsequently donated to children’s charities across the globe.

We thought it was a really good time to stop and celebrate, to showcase the breadth and depth of what we do

Mace operates in 70 countries, across five international hubs in London, New York, Johannesburg, Hong Kong and Dubai, and making sure that all 4,600 employees were part of the commemorations was hugely important. A baton relay helped unite all the countries under one brand, as the baton – named The Adventurer – visited 25 countries and 250 Mace projects, even finding itself on stage with rock band Scouting for Girls at one point, in an effort to raise £200,000 for the Mace Foundation. The relay echoed the Olympic and Paralympic Torch Relay, highlighting Mace’s work as one of three companies that delivered the Games.

Within every hub, a 25th anniversary champion was appointed whose role was to make the celebration relevant to the different regions. They were helped by a colleague in the marketing team, who ran an online webinar to pass on key messaging that could be applied locally.

The main objective for the celebration was internal advocacy: making employees proud of the organisation they work for. And it seems to have worked. More than four in five employees recently agreed or strongly that they had taken part in a Mace 25th anniversary activity, whilst 94 per cent said they enjoyed being part of the celebrations. These numbers differ because whilst someone may not have been involved with the Lego challenge or a five kilometre race, they may have joined in some of the celebration events or at least had a 25th cupcake.

Regardless, an overwhelming 97 per cent of employees believed that it is an exciting time to be working at Mace. Getting involvement from the senior level was also a significant part of making the celebrations inclusive. Members of the board were not only involved in events as extensive as a Tour de Mace (where employees cycled 250 miles from Manchester to London to raise money for the Mace Foundation), but also they formed part of a music video that was shared across the company on the Intranet, with staff lip-syncing to Take That’s These Days.

Though our prime goal was internal advocacy, we also wanted to say thank you to our clients and our employees. We have some longstanding clients without whom we wouldn’t necessarily be here

The anniversary followed Mace’s founding principle, to commit to ‘a better way’ of doing things, meaning that large scale events were not just parties, but also opportunities to break world records. Its 25th anniversary party, held for clients, featured 25 dancers, known as the ‘Mace Spirit of Adventure’ team, twirling on streams of silk over five minutes, winning the Guinness World Record for Most people performing aerial silks. (The average number of simultaneous aerial performers is usually between two and five.)

‘Mace is a company that thrives on adventure, challenge and opportunity,’ explains chief executive Mark Reynolds. ‘We have a track record of doing things bolder and better when delivering our projects and we brought this to life at our 25th anniversary event.’

‘We didn’t want [the anniversary] to be navel-gazing,’ asserts Regan. ‘We’re famous for doing what others think can’t be done. Though our prime goal was internal advocacy, we also wanted to say thank you to our clients and our employees. We have some longstanding clients without whom we wouldn’t necessarily be here.’

A masterplan of a virtual ‘Mace World’ was created, showing 60 of Mace’s most memorable achievements in a purpose-built city, and though Mace worked with a digital agency, the majority of the work, including 4D modelling and architectural planning, was done in-house. The masterplan demonstrated to staff the broad range of work that Mace does in sectors ranging from education and social care to hotels, leisure and sport.

‘It was a real cross-selling of services,’ states Regan. ‘It is a great example of collaboration internally.’

This year, Mace is evaluating its brand positioning, launching a new corporate website and looking into where the industry will be going in the next 25 years. ‘It would be a shame to lose that narrative,’ says Regan, but acknowledges that she chose to look forward to the future in 2016 rather than talk about it extensively as part of the anniversary celebrations.

Regan is proud of what her communications team achieved last year, calling the anniversary her ‘pet project’, and hopes that the anniversary brought the organisation to life.

‘We showcased what the communications team could do,’ says Regan. ‘But we also showcased other parts of the organisation.’

Another company keen to showcase its work was McDonald’s UK, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014. The fast food company launched a campaign Serving the UK to demonstrate the positive contribution it makes to customers, suppliers and employees, as well as the wider economy.

‘We wanted to use the milestone to understand more about the value we deliver to the UK today, to help our many stakeholders understand us better and to inform our own future decision making,’ says Dionne Parker, director of corporate affairs at McDonald’s UK.

‘It was a year-long campaign that really highlighted our key achievements over the last four decades; from our economic contribution and employment, skills and social mobility, to the tangible impact of our restaurants on the towns and communities they serve through our programmes such as grassroots football sponsorship, tackling litter and our support of Ronald McDonald House Charities.’

McDonald’s UK has added £40 billion to the British economy since it opened in 1974, creating more than 1.5 million jobs, within the business and across its supply chain. Preparing to disclose this information to the public began two years before the anniversary, when Parker’s team and agencies started mining for research that would inform the campaign’s final Serving The UK report.

Through this, the team also discovered fun facts from McDonald’s UK’s history that would provide hooks for both traditional and social media. For example, the so-called McLibel trial (when McDonald’s took two activists to court over a pamphlet they had written about the company’s ethics and the nutritional value of its food) is the longest trial in English legal history, lasting well over a decade.

‘Our 40th anniversary gave us the chance to celebrate both internally and externally – so multiple audiences ranging from our people and franchisees to customers, suppliers, farmers and stakeholders including the media,’ says Parker.

‘Almost everyone has a McDonald’s memory and we brought this nostalgia to life through our social media campaigning and above the line, so that our customers who have enjoyed McDonald’s over the last 40 years could see how we’ve changed and grown as a business.’ Again, it wasn’t all about looking back. The 29-page report was launched in June 2014 at an event at Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s residence, Number 11 Downing Street.

At the launch, McDonald’s announced a new commitment to create 8,000 new jobs over three years, a target the company achieved within 18 months.

‘We wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on our past but in doing so it naturally led us to making some projections and plans for the future,’ says Parker.

Almost everyone has a McDonald’s memory and we brought this nostalgia to life through our social media campaigning and above the line, so that our customers who have enjoyed McDonald’s over the last 40 years could see how we’ve changed and grown as a business

Current employees and suppliers were not left out of the celebrations. ‘We told some lovely stories around the heritage of the brand using fun facts and stats, and highlighted those who have been in the business for 30 to 40 years,’ states Parker.

‘We work very closely with our suppliers in all areas of the business and they formed an important part of our history and success so our activity championed their role too. The Serving the UK project emphasised the significance of their contributions – they were an essential part of the campaign and allowed us to further amplify our story both locally and nationally.’

In addition to the report, McDonald’s UK also launched a new interactive website that generated infographics tailored regionally to show the contribution the restaurant has made to various localities.

‘The Serving the UK report gave us a strong message for stakeholders, local and central Government by demonstrating the role we’ve played in communities across the UK since 1974.

‘Whether it was our impact on agriculture through the support of 17,500 British and Irish farmers or to the 60,000 people we’ve awarded nationally recognised qualifications; the successes we shared at a national and regional level strengthened relationships across the UK with influencers and decision-makers, many of whom were challenged to reconsider their opinion of our brand,’ says Parker.

From changing brand perception to engaging employees, the reasons for celebrating corporate anniversaries are numerous.

Whether it’s Hampton Court’s five-tiered edible masterpiece or the birthday cakes sent to all McDonald’s restaurant teams and offices, companies clearly can have their cake and eat it.