Towering Success

The poppy installation at the Tower of London was a hard sell initially

The brief facing every public institution across the country must have been a difficult one.

On the centenary marking Britain’s entry into World War One, create a memorable event which will commemorate the thousands of British soldiers who lost their lives in the four-year conflict, while, at the same time, provide a space for the public to reflect and remember. Any money raised for charities linked to the military would be an added bonus.

And one installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London, triumphed over all others.

In a few short months, it became one of the most successful public art installations of all time.

It attracted more than five million visitors from in excess of 100 countries and provided a massive windfall for six military charities to which it was linked. It was visited by the Queen, went viral on social media and even received a last minute stay of execution from the Prime Minister – allowing part of it to stay in place for a further two weeks.

But just how did this memorial featuring 888,246 ceramic poppies – each one marking a British or Colonial death during the war and progressively planted in the Tower’s iconic moat – become such an overwhelming success? How did it emerge from being merely an eccentric artist’s exercise to a worldwide sensation?

In part the installation – spread over the moat’s 16 acres – is so visual, so stunning, it was bound to gain attention. But behind it was also a well-thought out, well-crafted media campaign led by Catherine Steventon, media and public relations manager at the Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity which cares for the Tower and five other palaces.

‘From the very start, I knew if we were doing something of this size and scale, we would get major coverage. So I had to have a strong strategy in place,’ says Steventon, from her office inside the Tower’s walls. ‘But what I didn’t expect was just how big it would become.’

SLOW PROGRESS

But first the story behind the campaign.

It was only a little more than a year ago that Devon-based ceramic artist Paul Cummins came up with the concept of creating a ceremonial garden of nearly one million poppies to mark the centenary. Inspiration had come from an unsigned will of a Derbyshire soldier who wrote of being surrounded by ‘the blood-swept land and seas of red, where angels fear to tread’.

In October 2013, he approached Colonel John Brown, deputy governor of the Tower of London, asking if the site would be interested in the idea. By then the Tower already had two exhibitions planned: one showing its role in recruitment, deployment and training of 1,600 soldiers prior to being sent to the Front, while another display would reveal its past as a prison and execution site for 11 spies captured in Britain.

‘We weren’t looking for something new. We already had our plans,’ says Steventon. ‘And then along came Paul Cummins and we immediately thought This sounds like a good idea. So we said yes, even though logistically it was huge.’

Very quickly, things began to gather apace as staff at the Tower realised the magnitude of the concept coupled with the time constraints. But at the same time, they remained quietly confident.

‘A lot of organisations could not have taken it on, but Historic Royal Palaces has a tradition of staging ambitious projects. We are independent. We have a strong infrastructure, the know-how and a background in history and military. We knew we could make it happen,’ adds Steventon.

A dedicated team, led by Brown, was formed. It included Cummins, Steventon, head of creative programming Deborah Shaw and Tom Piper, an Olivier Award-winning theatre designer hired to bring Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red to life.

Ideas were batted around. At first the team considered unveiling all 888,246 poppies on 5 August, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. This idea was soon discarded when they realised it was too ambitious. They also originally planned to have a continuous roll call of all 888,246 soldiers read out each evening before the Last Post was played. This was changed after Shaw came up with the idea of members of the public nominating a name to be recited, in the hopes of making it more personal.

At the same time, Steventon was working on the media strategy. Having worked at Historic Royal Palaces for six years, covering high profile campaigns such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the 2012 Olympics, she was used to dealing with domestic and international news outlets.

For the Tower Remembers project, she formed her own in-house team including herself, digital media manager John Shevlin and press officer Pauline Stobbs. At key points, she drew on support from the remaining five members of her team.

In February, the first press release was sent out detailing how the Tower would mark the anniversary with a major art installation. It was, to put it politely, ignored by every media outlet. ‘There was no pick up,’ says Steventon, with a laugh. ‘Nothing. Not even a nibble.’

In May, Steventon released another statement announcing that each ceramic poppy planted in the moat would be available for sale for £25 and proceeds would go to six military charities: Confederation of Service Charities (COBSEO), Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes, Royal British Legion and SSAFA (formerly the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association).

This time there was press reaction, albeit small. Undaunted, the team pressed ahead. A series of meetings were held with staff from the charities, encouraging them to spread the word – digitally and traditionally – through their supporters. ‘Historic Royal Palaces took the lead on all communications and content. We just mirrored them,’ explains a spokesperson from COBSEO.

At the same time, the Tower press team worked on the social media side – creating Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter pages dedicated to the installation – and creating a hashtag, #TowerPoppies.

They also launched an online learning and engagement programme targeting those who normally did not visit the Tower because of financial, cultural, social or physical reasons. And they linked up with Discovery Education to create a Why Remember? schools campaign, which focused on three simple questions. Why should they remember the war? Why was 100 years so significant? And how would they like to remember? The themes were used by schools to create meaningful discussions with young people, and encourage creative responses through art, photography, writing, film or dance. Schools were invited to share their work via an online mosaic and on 10 November, a 30 minute broadcast live from the Tower of London was watched by 750,000 children.

‘There were a lot of layers to the campaign,’ explains Steventon. ‘The roll of honour, the volunteers, the charities, the poppies and making sure we included as many people as possible – of all ages. At the same time we had to ensure it was a place of reflection.’

On 17 July came the first photo opportunity. ‘I wanted to tell a story so I got a Beefeater, our longest-serving Yeoman warder, to pose in full dress and plant the first poppy because that is what everybody associates with the Tower of London.’ Coverage again was limited. ‘Media outlets were not really grasping it, but understandably the visuals weren’t there yet,’ says Steventon.

And then came 5 August, the official opening, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the site.

Around 120,000 poppies had been planted by then and two of its features, Weeping Window and Wave, had been mounted. All the major broadcasters and broadsheets were present as the Duchess of Cambridge brushed a tear from her eye as she walked through the swathe of red.

The visit, allied with the visuals, gave the campaign the boost the Tower had been hoping for. By the end of the week more than 200,000 ceramic poppies had sold, crowds began pouring in, and volunteers were signing up in droves – with one woman coming from as far away as South Korea to put in her four-hour planting shift. Coverage ballooned. It was as if a switch was turned on and suddenly it became, as Cummins described it, ‘a massive worldwide community project’.

Blair Metcalfe, head of media and entertainment at Ogilvy PR, puts forward his reasoning.‘The beauty in this activity is the visual. You can’t describe it, you have to see it. It needs the visual to lead us to connect the poppies today with  the tragedy of the First World War. Once people had that image, the words being said about the activity found greater meaning, and the emotion of the scene become all the more of a draw.’

Sally-Ann Christodoulakis, account director at digital marketing agency Gertrude & Ivy, agrees. ‘It captured the nation’s emotions and at the same time it was such a visual feast,’ she says. ‘It was as if it was made for social media.’

Even Steventon was caught off guard. ‘We were prepared for a lot of coverage. What we didn’t realise was the emotional aspect – how personal it would become and the media’s unabating interest in it. They were always finding a new angle,’ she says.

For the next three and a half months, Steventon and her team worked flat out. ‘At one stage, calls were coming in around the clock. With our out-of-hours on-call system in place, this meant I could be taking calls from 5am (if not earlier) from broadcasters hoping to come down on site in the next couple of hours, then I’d check emails and daily coverage reports before leaving home responding to urgent enquiries on the journey into work,’ says Steventon.

‘At work, phones would be ringing non-stop and my in-box reached capacity several times. I know the rest of the team were experiencing similar situations and their help was invaluable. Myself and Pauline seem to have spent much of the last few months in the moat of the Tower, come rain or shine, either undertaking photography with journalists or orchestrating live TV moments.

‘John and I would often attend project meetings, where we would get updates on the project and see if there were any new opportunities, especially quick win moments we could use on social media. Calls would start to calm down after 6pm and during this time we would crack on writing pro-active press materials, sorting through images, answering the backlog of requests and scheduling for the rest of the week and months to come. There was a lot of tea and chocolate involved throughout!’

Though the collation of media coverage is not yet complete, Steventon says it is fair to call it ‘epic’. So far, Historic Royal Palaces have identified more than 1,700 individual reports on the project in the UK media alone since May, including more than 370 national print media articles and in excess of 340 national broadcast (radio/TV) moments.

The project featured on the front page of almost all Britain’s national newspapers, often several times, and there were detailed feature articles plus extensive coverage regionally and on major news websites. The poppies also featured overseas, with articles in local newspapers in America, Australia and Canada and across much of Europe.

As for social media, the installation was one of the most popular ever posted on HRP’s profiles. For example, the 41 posts across the Tower’s and HRP’s Facebook pages generated in excess of 34 million impressions with a combined reach of 18 million.

Since July, the Tower’s Facebook page has gained 78,000 new followers, taking the total to in excess of 211,000 (which has since fallen back to 182,000). On some days, they attracted upwards of 2,000 new followers. On Twitter, the hashtag #TowerPoppies was used more than 100,000 times since the project’s inception, with content from Historic Royal Palace’s Twitter account generating more than three million impressions.

Looking back, Steventon says that while she previously thought heading up the PR for the Tower of London during the Olympic Games was a career high, the Tower Remembers project has brought it to another level. ‘I feel proud of what we have achieved in the team. I’m not sure what can top this. It has been exceptional.’

As for the next challenge? She laughs. ‘All of us here in the press office could go to sleep for a few months.’

‘There were a lot of layers to the campaign,’ explains Steventon. ‘The roll of honour, the volunteers, the charities, the poppies and making sure we included as many people as possible – of all ages. At the same time we had to ensure it was a place of reflection.’

On 17 July came the first photo opportunity. ‘I wanted to tell a story so I got a Beefeater, our longest-serving Yeoman warder, to pose in full dress and plant the first poppy because that is what everybody associates with the Tower of London.’ Coverage again was limited. ‘Media outlets were not really grasping it, but understandably the visuals weren’t there yet,’ says Steventon.

And then came 5 August, the official opening, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the site.

Around 120,000 poppies had been planted by then and two of its features, Weeping Window and Wave, had been mounted. All the major broadcasters and broadsheets were present as the Duchess of Cambridge brushed a tear from her eye as she walked through the swathe of red.

The visit, allied with the visuals, gave the campaign the boost the Tower had been hoping for. By the end of the week more than 200,000 ceramic poppies had sold, crowds began pouring in, and volunteers were signing up in droves – with one woman coming from as far away as South Korea to put in her four-hour planting shift. Coverage ballooned. It was as if a switch was turned on and suddenly it became, as Cummins described it, ‘a massive worldwide community project’.

Blair Metcalfe, head of media and entertainment at Ogilvy PR, puts forward his reasoning.‘The beauty in this activity is the visual. You can’t describe it, you have to see it. It needs the visual to lead us to connect the poppies today with  the tragedy of the First World War. Once people had that image, the words being said about the activity found greater meaning, and the emotion of the scene become all the more of a draw.’

Sally-Ann Christodoulakis, account director at digital marketing agency Gertrude & Ivy, agrees. ‘It captured the nation’s emotions and at the same time it was such a visual feast,’ she says. ‘It was as if it was made for social media.’

Even Steventon was caught off guard. ‘We were prepared for a lot of coverage. What we didn’t realise was the emotional aspect – how personal it would become and the media’s unabating interest in it. They were always finding a new angle,’ she says.

For the next three and a half months, Steventon and her team worked flat out. ‘At one stage, calls were coming in around the clock. With our out-of-hours on-call system in place, this meant I could be taking calls from 5am (if not earlier) from broadcasters hoping to come down on site in the next couple of hours, then I’d check emails and daily coverage reports before leaving home responding to urgent enquiries on the journey into work,’ says Steventon.

‘At work, phones would be ringing non-stop and my in-box reached capacity several times. I know the rest of the team were experiencing similar situations and their help was invaluable. Myself and Pauline seem to have spent much of the last few months in the moat of the Tower, come rain or shine, either undertaking photography with journalists or orchestrating live TV moments.

‘John and I would often attend project meetings, where we would get updates on the project and see if there were any new opportunities, especially quick win moments we could use on social media. Calls would start to calm down after 6pm and during this time we would crack on writing pro-active press materials, sorting through images, answering the backlog of requests and scheduling for the rest of the week and months to come. There was a lot of tea and chocolate involved throughout!’

Though the collation of media coverage is not yet complete, Steventon says it is fair to call it ‘epic’. So far, Historic Royal Palaces have identified more than 1,700 individual reports on the project in the UK media alone since May, including more than 370 national print media articles and in excess of 340 national broadcast (radio/TV) moments.

The project featured on the front page of almost all Britain’s national newspapers, often several times, and there were detailed feature articles plus extensive coverage regionally and on major news websites. The poppies also featured overseas, with articles in local newspapers in America, Australia and Canada and across much of Europe.

As for social media, the installation was one of the most popular ever posted on HRP’s profiles. For example, the 41 posts across the Tower’s and HRP’s Facebook pages generated in excess of 34 million impressions with a combined reach of 18 million.

Since July, the Tower’s Facebook page has gained 78,000 new followers, taking the total to in excess of 211,000 (which has since fallen back to 182,000). On some days, they attracted upwards of 2,000 new followers. On Twitter, the hashtag #TowerPoppies was used more than 100,000 times since the project’s inception, with content from Historic Royal Palace’s Twitter account generating more than three million impressions.

Looking back, Steventon says that while she previously thought heading up the PR for the Tower of London during the Olympic Games was a career high, the Tower Remembers project has brought it to another level. ‘I feel proud of what we have achieved in the team. I’m not sure what can top this. It has been exceptional.’

As for the next challenge? She laughs. ‘All of us here in the press office could go to sleep for a few months.’