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The big guns come out to play

by AprilSix Proof

Events – there are far too many of them. Whilst a staple of the communications industry, the world of events seems to have gone mad. It has become a problem for the humble press officer. Everyone putting on an event wants to use it as a marketing opportunity. They want the press to attend in numbers and they assume that the presence of their CEO is enough to drive hoards of eager reporters to their platform to hear them orate. In reality there are very few events these days that attract decent press coverage, let alone decent press attendance. Journalists are stretched, they have far too much to do, far too much content to write, and far too much pressure to hit the keyboard to saunter out of the office for a day. But once in a while a different type of event takes place. One which brings together a combination of elements that tick every box on the media’s  checklist. It’s relevant to the news agenda. It’s visually appealing. It’s unusual in its structure and rationale. It’s human as well as corporate. It offers access to people who would otherwise be difficult to meet. And it’s truly newsworthy.  Then they come running.

This week, one of Proof’s longest-standing clients, the Cyber Security Challenge, delivered exactly that. Built in partnership with BT, Airbus, GCHQ, the NCA, C3IA, and a host of other security bodies, the UK’s largest ever civilian cyber security attack simulation – Masterclass – took place on HMS Belfast. The scenario? The boat had been accessed by a (fake) terrorist group and guns were trained on City Hall. The team selected to solve the problem?  42 of the UK’s brightest amateur cyber sleuths. Men and women aged 16 to 40 all of whom have demonstrated a natural gift for problem solving in the cyber arena and who represent the UK’s future cyber defenders. It was a stunning opportunity for the press and following a month of careful approaches to the right outlets, more than 30 publications and broadcasters descended on the boat yesterday to see it happen.

Any press team worth their salt has dealt with media at events before. It can be challenging – you ask them to turn up on time, they rarely do and then you have to chase them round a venue to ensure they speak to the right people before they leave. This was a whole different ball game. Funnelling this many journalists through five rooms in the bowels of a warship for three hours was only marginally easier than juggling 30 bars of wet soap. The requests came thick and fast: “I need to go live in 20 minutes with a candidate interview,” “Can I speak to these five people within an hour?”  “I want a government spokesperson to explain what’s happening,” “when can I get the pictures for a piece I need to file by 4pm?” and so on and so forth.

Sounds difficult? Now add this in to the mix – at least 20% of the people at this event, in rooms no bigger than half a tennis court, filled with more than 130 individuals in total, were from organisations that required them to remain anonymous for reasons of national security. They needed to remain out of shot, off the camera lens, and entirely off the record. So not only was the Proof team herding 30 reporters for three hours, they were also watching like hawks to ensure no one who shouldn’t end up in the public eye was captured on film or on camera.

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It’s difficult to describe what this is like. It’s high pressure. But it’s also exhilarating. Anyone who has done press relations for a living knows where I am coming from. You’ve got them all here and all the amazing things you promised them would happen actually do. It’s going down well. The reporters are excited. It makes you excited. And everything starts happening at 100mph. Heart rates rise. Adrenaline courses through your veins. Requests are coming thick and fast, and you are delivering on every single one. This is working. Media are smiling (unusually) and the client is working as hard as you are to make the most of the opportunity.

People are moving quickly from room to room now. Walkie talkies are blaring every 5 seconds barking new sets of requirements and instructions; cameras are flashing; boom mikes are being thrust up people’s noses in every corner of the room; hands are being placed in front of lenses to kill off shots of people supposed to be off camera; and then the complaints start coming in that there are TOO MANY reporters onsite. That is the point where you have to step back and survey the scene. Take it all in. The event is buzzing. The PR team are firing. The client is exhausted from the flurry of interviews happening every minute of this crazy couple of hours. It’s manic and brilliant and it is working – right  there in front of your eyes.

Then it stops. Reporters down tools. They have what they need and they disperse. Camera lights go out. The volume decreases. Running becomes walking. Heart rates drop. Adrenaline ceases. People stop asking questions. Pats on backs start echoing. The PR team is smiling. The client is nearly asleep. Press day at Masterclass is done for another year.

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