Our client at EngineeringUK summed up the glorious madness of the Big Bang Fair perfectly: “it started with mind control and perfect free kicks, took in hot rods, climate change and a marriage proposal and saw some serious coffee action”.
It was a week that saw us make not one but two trips to the BBC Breakfast studios in Manchester and play host to broadcast crews and journalists at the Fair including Sky News, Swipe, Newsround and PA.
So how do you get coverage for what is, essentially, a science fair to get young people excited about careers in STEM? An event that on paper falls between two stalls – ‘too fun’ for the hard science writers and ‘too science-y’ for education and careers contacts.
Tenacity, hard work and some killer (low-budget) stories.
In the build up we had two strong PR-led news stories – fronted by scientific experts who helped give us the edge but without the data or ‘newness’ that usually gets the papers attention.
We created a stunt for the first morning of the Fair – something broadcast crews could film but that was in our gift to control, working with students at the University of Leicester and England international junior, Riva Casley, to demonstrate the formula for the perfect free kick.
The rest of our stories took advantage of the Fair content, contacting exhibitors and sniffing out stories and spokespeople – from the One Show’s resident science bloke, Dr Marty Jopson, to a group of 4th year engineering students from Warwick who’d come up with mind-controlled scalextrix.
As we locked in media to attend the Fair, we got the last minute callback from BBC Breakfast to say they wanted the scalextrix in the studio. Cue my first epic journey north, with the ‘spokesperson briefing’ taking place in the Holiday Inn bar at about midnight.
After a 5am start, that first day of the Fair was a blur of media interviews and training with hurried glimpses around the Fair floor and much time spent hitting the phones in a press office with a secret stash of biscuits and cans of coke.
On day 2 the focus changed from getting people to come down to promoting the Fair’s big award ceremony – the National Science + Engineering Competition.
The challenge? Trying to secure the client’s one desire: a national sofa slot for the winners on Friday 18th when we wouldn’t know who those winners actually were until lunchtime on Thursday 17th (with the shortlist only available on the Wednesday night).
When we finally found out – it couldn’t have been better. The UK Young Engineers were an amazing group of teenage boys who had built the first ever accessible hot rod from scratch in just 3 months, inspired by one of the team’s brother, David, who is severely disabled. The UK Young Scientist was an eloquent young lady called Roxanne El-Hady whose project had looked at climate change.
With the winners confirmed, we locked in BBC Breakfast for the second time, with one marginally challenging requirement – us getting the hot rod on to the piazza outside the studio and (if possible) getting David to sit in the car on air. This was made slightly harder by the fact that we couldn’t ask the family or confirm any of the logistics until after 6pm when they finally found out they’d won.
As I (eventually) drove up to Manchester in the middle of the night with a family I had only met hours earlier following a school minibus towing a hot rod, learning their life story – I was struck by how cool our jobs can be. PR gives you the opportunity to do some of the most fun (and kind of ridiculous) things, to meet people whose stories inspire you and to share those stories with the world.
And the marriage proposal? Well, that would be telling.