My Work in PRogress guest this month is the wonderfully talented Lou Ali. I’ve always admired Lou’s brilliant work from afar, so was totally honoured to chat to her about everything from how to go viral, to how to take care of yourself while working in this crazy industry. Hope you guys enjoy this chat as much as I did!
What is your ultimate shower song? (The song you can give a 10/10 Grammy-worthy performance of in your shower on a Saturday morning).
Talk about starting with a tough question!! Music is my life to be honest, so it’s tough to pick a genre, let alone a song, but Stevie Nicks is my spirit animal, so I’ve got to go with ‘Rhiannon’…or ‘Edge of Seventeen’.
What are your three favourite campaigns that you’ve ever worked on?
One of the most fun campaigns I’ve ever worked on was ‘Straight from the Horse’s Mouth’ that we did for GoCompare (Travel Insurance). For this piece we selected 10 animals and translated their ‘animal noise’ into different languages. For example, in English we would say “a chicken says cock-a-doodle-doo”, whereas in Spain, they say “quiquiri-quí”.
I worked on this when I was at Verve Search, where the team was made up of individuals from all around the world speaking 14 languages, so it was easy to get the translations for the campaign. But the hilarity came from hearing the team wondering around the office practicing their best “roars” and “oinks”! It totally paid off though, as it was a killer campaign that did amazingly.
I also loved working on ‘Scots Poems’ for VisitScotland (Tourism). For this campaign, we surveyed Scots, asking them which were their favourite Scots poems and songs that they learned at school – since this is a core part of their curriculum.
The results from the survey were great, but the cherry on the icing was partnering with iconic Scottish actor, James Cosmo of Braveheart and Game of Thrones fame. Since he is based close to where I live, I was fortunate enough to go to his house with a production company and film him reciting Scotland’s favourite poem, which was ‘To a Mouse’ by Robert Burns.
It was absolutely magical, since he is a true storyteller and absolutely brought the poem to life – being there gave me goosebumps. For me personally, it was great to be so hands-on with the campaign, including the direction and editing, something I don’t get involved in as much as I’d like nowadays, given my role. Also, being a total GoT fangirl, it was an absolute dream to chat with James about the show and get the inside scoop on his co-stars.
Finally, how can I talk about top campaigns without mentioning the infamous ‘Celeb Jets’? The actual ideation and creation of this campaign was so simple, and felt so obvious at the time, but the reaction went far further than any of us had anticipated. It was a wild ride, to say the least.
The amount of coverage was one thing (over 5,000 pieces of coverage and links from absolute dream publications at last count), but it was the response from celebrities and their representatives that tickled me the most. I mean, to get a reaction from Taylor Swift, Drake and Jay Z is unbelievable for any Digital PR campaign. And it wasn’t just their reactions that filled my heart with joy. We got visibly trolled by a lot of Taylor Swift fans, but our peers in the industry completely rallied behind us, either publicly standing up against the negative comments with us, or privately sending us DMs to make sure we were doing ok. The support was overwhelming, appreciated and, at times, needed!
I think most digital PRs saw your amazing Celeb Jets campaign last year – it went everywhere! What do you think is the perfect recipe for creating a ‘viral’ campaign?
So, I should caveat that not all great campaigns go viral. So many bloody brilliant campaigns have had a fantastic impact on a client’s brand or SEO, but haven’t exactly gone ‘viral’. At the same time, a lot of viral campaigns are basically ‘cheap clickbait’ (ducks for cover!). I’m not saying that’s what Celeb Jets was at all, because the purpose behind it was solid, and we achieved our objectives – we wanted to draw attention to a serious issue around carbon emissions and found a way that we knew would get people talking, hence it was a hit.
In my experience, if your sole objective is to go viral, these campaigns often involve celebrities and shock, because if you can come up with something surprising (but true!) about a well-known personality, it will trigger a response from the public, whether they like that individual or not. For example, campaigns I’ve worked on that have gone viral:
The Celebrity: Taylor Swift
The Emotion: Shock that someone that works hard to present themselves as ‘clean cut’ isn’t modelling good behaviour when it comes to supporting in the prevention of a climate crisis.
The Response: People that love her amplified our story by fighting against it (and us), people that weren’t fans were almost smug about it (especially Kardashian fans!).
The Celebrity: Cristiano Ronaldo
The Emotion: Shock that he earned more money through Instagram ads than through his lucrative football contract.
The Response: People that loved him celebrated this and thought he deserved it, people that weren’t fans called him a sell-out.
The Celebrity: Jonah Hill
The Emotion: Shock that he swears the most in films, more so than some other actors that you’d expect to top the list, like Samuel L Jackson or Al Pacino.
The Response: Jonah himself was surprised, so he tweeted and posted an Instagram about it. Samuel L Jackson talked about the campaign on the Jimmy Fallon Show and said it was ‘bullsh*t’ – so their shock alone got everyone else debating the subject!
So, if you’re looking for a viral campaign, one way is to think about how you can challenge the perception people have of specific celebrities. Not all celebrity campaigns will go viral; once you have your stats, if the results are obvious, ‘bin it’ if you can’t ‘fix it’ and move on to the next.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in digital PR?
I would tell someone new to the industry that it’s a brilliant career path and filled with huge highs, great senses of achievements and tangible wins, but to also brace themselves for some low moments – and that when things don’t go as you hope, it’s okay, because we all ‘get it’.
It can be brutal if you struggle with rejection because you will inevitably experience rejection of your campaign ideas and rejection from journalists (who have been known to be unnecessarily harsh). Not only that, but you’re in a role which means you need to consume media, which can often be pretty negative, so it’s really important that anyone working in digital PR has a tight support network, can find ways to switch off, and has an outlet to refuel their positive energy.
By tight support network, I’m talking about your colleagues and leaders that ‘get it’. Make sure you’re working in a team that has collaboration and communication at its core. No one should ever feel alone in this kind of work, so a supportive team is vital. If you don’t have it, move on until you find your perfect match.
Switching off includes news consumption, but also switching off from social media; I wish I could remember who said this, but this really struck a chord with me – when most of the people you follow on Twitter are in the industry, it soon becomes a ‘place of work’ so don’t reside there too much when you’re out of hours.
And in terms of finding outlets, by that I mean set time aside for regular self-care. Find what works for you, it could be running, meditation, journaling, drawing, knitting…whatever helps you unclog your mind and focus on yourself and what you love…even if you love your work!
Having said that, I would also advise them to get on Twitter and start following people in the industry who know their stuff like Andy Barr, Carrie Rose, Gisele Navarro, Iona Townsley, James Hayward-Browne, Katy Powell, Louise Parker Peiris, Luke Cope, Mark Rofe, Matt Seabridge, Shannon McGuirk – I could easily go on). That’s not to say you need to start ‘PRing yourself’ (unless you want to, of course), my point is more around how Digital PRs are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, and this is the best place to soak all of that in. You’ll quickly become inspired by the work that’s being put out there, motivated to aim high when getting coverage and self-assured when you learn that we don’t all have it all figured out. We’re always asking questions and learning from each other – it’s a beautiful thing!
Working in PR can mean that you have to be ‘always on’ – what are your favourite ways to switch off?
Setting boundaries is critical. I do it in terms of my working hours as I’m very strict about when I’m available vs not – which is not that hard to do when you have two toddlers, because when they’re around, I have no time for work! I make sure I take a lunch break, and always use that time to go for a walk for no less than 45 minutes, even if it’s raining. I tell my team when I’m doing this, because I want to model good behaviour and encourage them to do as I do when it comes to prioritising your wellbeing.
I go for a run or do a Joe Wicks workout before I start work because it gets my head straight before the start of the day, especially if I’ve had a rough night with the aforementioned toddlers! I also use this time to listen to podcasts, so I feel like I’m doing good for my body, and also expanding my mind at the same time.
As I mentioned above, Twitter has become very work-centric for me (which is better than what it was, it used to be all about politics!) so I have to tell myself to stop going on there because it doesn’t matter if I’m just flicking through to see what’s happening in the world, I often end up thinking about what I’m looking at in terms of work. So, if I am scrolling through in the evening and see a podcast or article I might find useful for work, I’ll email it to myself (because I’m old school and bookmarks just don’t do it for me!) and pick it up again when I’m in work mode. I do love Twitter, so this is hard for me, but I really have a word with myself to make sure I’m taking a break.
Finally, I highly recommend ‘self-care Sundays’ (or whatever day you rather, for me it’s Sunday, because weekends are normally hectic!). I use this time to have a super relaxing bath, a facial and meditate so I can completely unwind and mentally prepare for the next working week.
Finally, what does being a work in progress mean to you? (Both professionally and personally).
For me personally, it’s about acknowledging and accepting your short-comings, uncovering areas that you might want to work on, and having the motivation to develop yourself in order to get to a place where you can truly be proud and love yourself.
We’re all a work in progress, so it’s healthy to have this kind of mindset. No one is perfect at everything, but you’re perfect at being you. So, just keep striving to do your best, be kind to yourself and others, and be the best version of yourself, and you really can’t go wrong in life.
You can keep up with the wonderful Lou on Twitter here and LinkedIn here.