It is hard to think of a more iconic image than the red poppy, symbolising so much in such a small item, but when Historic Royal Palaces commissioned artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper to create an art installation at the Tower of London, it produced a moving visual that dramatically encapsulated the loss of human life in the First World War.
The installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red involved planting 888,246 ceramic poppies in the Tower’s moat, each representing a British fatality.
From the planting of the first poppy by a Beefeater on 17 July 2014 through to the last one on Armistice Day, the Historic Royal Palaces’ media team had to create a calendar of events and activities that would build interest, recruit volunteers to assist with the installation and finally secure the sale of each poppy to raise funds for six military service charities.
But, more importantly, the team had to position Tower Poppies as one of the most unique and ambitious commemorations of the First World War centenary.
The first press release about the installation was sent out in February 2014. Not one news organisation covered it. Three months later, a release stated each poppy would be sold for £25 to raise charitable funds. There was minor interest. Undeterred, the team pressed ahead, developing a digital media strategy using Historic Royal Palaces’ social platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagam and YouTube. The hashtag #TowerPoppies was created, to provide a focal point for the social activity.
With a minimal budget, the media team commissioned aerial footage and a series of films, from the making of the poppies to their installation, which were offered to broadcasters and online media newsrooms.
By the time of the official opening on 5 August, which was attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, around 140,000 poppies had been planted, and two of its features had been mounted, Weeping Window and Wave. The visit was covered by major broadcasters and newspapers. By the end of the week, 120,000 poppies had been sold.
And for the next three months, the team worked flat out. Their efforts recruited more than 30,000 volunteers, including one lady who flew from South Korea to work on her four hour shift. Media coverage was widespread, including 1,700 individual UK media moments, with 370 national print articles and 340 national broadcast articles.
The hashtag #TowerPoppies gathered more than three million impressions on Twitter, while 41 Facebook posts generated in excess of 34 million impressions. And, importantly, more than five million people came to view the installation. It has been calculated that 44 per cent of visits were prompted by media coverage, while 94 per cent of all domestic visitors had seen articles about the poppies.
Some people will suggest that such a visual interpretation was bound to attract interest, but the media campaign undoubtedly boosted visitor numbers, volunteer numbers and, ultimately funds for the charities.
But the three person team also did so much more: they launched an online learning and engagement programme to connect with those people who would not otherwise consider visiting the Tower of London, and they teamed up with Discovery Education to create a Why remember? programme for schools, to prompt discussions among young people and encourage creative responses, which they were invited to share via an online mosaic.
It is hard to think of a campaign that has touched the nation’s emotions quite so deeply.