“Elves were smoking, Father Christmas was drunk, reindeer were biting children and one of Santa’s little helpers told a visitor to have a s*** Christmas.”
Once upon a time, in a land far away (Sutton Coldfield) there was a magical Christmas wonderland of elves and reindeer. It wasn’t any ordinary Christmas wonderland… no this one was designed by the one and only Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. It was called The Magical Journey.
Except… unfortunately, it wasn’t that magical. Truth is it opened too early – torrential rain and drainage issues had caused numerous problems and as families arrived expecting a wonderland they were met with a site where workmen were still rigging-up lighting, fake snow had not been laid out, staff were poorly trained and fencing was missing. Generally, the whole enterprise was well below the expected standard.
Needless to say, people wasted no time in sharing their concerns across social media. Posts on the event’s Facebook page received 1,000s of comments every minute from people demanding refunds for future bookings.
Print, online and broadcast media were all over it. I remember one daily tabloid ran a story claiming elves were smoking, Father Christmas was drunk, reindeer were biting children and one of Santa’s little helpers told a visitor to have a s*** Christmas.
The Magical Journey was in deep doodoo. The celebrity aspect, the time of year and the location – at the well-heeled golf resort of The Belfry – all added up to a perfect storm of a crisis.
The organisers took the smart decision to close for three days and fix it. And that’s where we came in.
We were tasked with mounting a media campaign which would reassure ticket holders the event would be going ahead and would be the great experience envisaged, as well as kick-starting new sales.
With a man on the ground – me – and support from the office back in Altrincham, we put together a strategy on the fly.
First – damage limitation:
- Set-up monitoring across all media channels so we could check what was being said and by whom
- We contacted all news desks and editors to tell them that the smoking elf/drunk santa/bitey reindeer stories were completely untrue – they had been lifted from social media, it became apparent the same person made them all as a joke but the media weren’t going to let the facts get in the way of a good story – as part of this we convinced The Telegraph to change their headline
- Put protocols in place for communicating with media
- We provided all outlets with clarifying statements and positive Facebook comments from the Saturday
- Online pieces were updated within 30 minutes and the next day 90% of media coverage contained key messages
Despite this, tensions were running very high in the area, at one point I found myself negotiating with the boss of a local haulage firm who had barricaded the entry to the site with a lorry in some kind of protest.
We also set a legal precedent after a photographer used a drone to capture behind the scenes footage – I had to issue a legal letter to managing editors of all national press informing them why they couldn’t use the footage.
And then there was me having to physically escort a number of sneaky tabloid journalists off-site when I caught them trying to get in.
Second, we needed to reassure people and kick-start new sales:
In order to do this we needed to turn around the tide of resentment that was growing and the escalating outcry on social media.
Laurence wasn’t available, so we took a gamble and put forward the creator of The Magical Journey, a gentleman called Paul Dolan – a softly spoken Irishman, who couldn’t have been further away from the flamboyant nature associated with Llewelyn-Bowen.
Paul had created the event with the noblest of intentions. He wasn’t a hand-wringing money-maker, he had genuinely set-out to create something his own children would love, and he was devastated at the outcome. He’d made the bad decision to open early. He was an honest, open man. He was so emotionally invested in the project that every time he spoke about it you could tell it was heartfelt. And that’s what we wanted to come across to the public.
After a crash course in speaking to the media, we tried him out on a local news interview on the Sunday evening.
The result was fantastic. His honesty and openness struck such a chord with the public that we instantly saw sentiment beginning to shift. It was fantastic to watch it on social media; instead of being a pariah, people began to root for him to get the event up and running.
Convinced this was the way to go we invited the world and his dog on site and put Paul in front of Sky News, BBC News, ITN, Radio 2, Radio 5, Radio 4, ITV Central News, BBC West Midlands, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire and West Midlands Today, as well as keeping a feed of information to the local press.
The impact was fantastic.
Within 48 hours the sentiment on social media had done an about turn. Now the nay-sayers and critics were being treated as if they were in the wrong. Paul’s honesty and heartfelt wishes for it to succeed came across in every interview. Demands for refunds stopped and new ticket sales began to take off.
We had BBC Radio 4 set-up a live link from the site so Paul could go on PM, where Eddie Mair tried to haul him across the coals. But Paul disarmed him with honesty and humbleness. After the interview the Radio 4 producer on site – someone who has worked with heads of state and captains of industry – said it was the best interview he’d ever heard ‘by someone in the s***’.
The PM show were actually inundated with messages of support for Paul and The Magical Journey – so much so he was invited back on a few days later when the event re-opened.
The One Show
To show how much the event had improved, we found a mummy blogger who had been to the event on the Saturday and had a terrible time – and decided it would be a great idea to invite her to come along on the Wednesday, when it re-opened.
We the pitched this idea to The One Show, who were keen provided the blogger was completely independent so we passed her details to them and let them take it from there.
It resulted in a three-minute feature fronted by consumer champion Dominic Littlewood, featuring fresh footage from the newly re-opened event showing cheering crowds, and snow-covered woodlands as well as a drive on the Santa train and a glowing review from the mummy blogger who appeared on camera with her baby son.
You can see that video above.
Sales took off and happy families enjoyed The Magical Journey, within a few days there were 600+ 4/5 star reviews on the Facebook page.
The Sad Post Script
Once it was up and running, we thought all the problems were over. But unfortunately, after three very succesful weeks, the US service provider who handled all the credit card transactions enacted a clause which allowed them to stop releasing funds and to hold on to all money for eight weeks. Without funding to plug the gap – and pay the staff – The Magical Journey was forced to close a week early.