Case study: When PR should avoid making headlines

About the author

Ruth Wilson is an independent public relations consultant based in Manchester

Mary Wolllstonecraft. Photo by  Grim23 via Wikipedia (Creative Commons)
Mary Wolllstonecraft. Photo by Grim23 via Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

I was on the BBC recently. Not with a client on this occasion: this time it was me.

I was quoted in a BBC online article about a new statue, which has just been unveiled in London (to be fair it’s only a screengrab of my tweet about it, but it sits right beneath comments from Caitlin Moran, so I can now die happy).

The statue isn’t to everyone’s taste and this has generated huge amounts of attention across mainstream and social media – and I find that interesting from a PR point of view. When I first saw it, I almost wondered if it was a PR stunt, akin to James Corden’s statue of David Beckham on the Late Show – and that we would see the real statue in a second, genuine unveiling.

Created as a tribute to UK’s ‘Mother of Feminism’ Mary Wollstonecraft, it is supposed to represent ‘everywoman’ according to the sculptor – she’s apparently emerging from a ‘swirling mingle of female forms.’

In reality, it’s a very small silver naked lady, standing on top of a large silver blob.

I guess if you squint, you can sort of see a human foot in the silver blob. The statue has been compared to a Barbie, the T-1000 from Terminator 2 and, as many have pointed out, she is, for some reason, naked.

Is this a fitting tribute? Or was that not the point? Perhaps the aim was to be deliberately controversial and create standout in a year that has seen quite a bit of media coverage about statues already.

Mary Wollstonecraft is (was!) best known for her ground-breaking feminist work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (published 1792). She had an abusive father who allegedly squandered all the family’s money, so she was self-taught – and as well as being a recognised philosopher and academic, she was an educationalist, setting up a girls’ boarding school in London at the age of 25. Just think what she could have achieved had she not tragically died in childbirth in her thirties (to Frankenstein author Mary Shelley).

Volunteers have spent the last 10 years raising funds (£143,00, to be precise) for a statue to honour her. This is a huge amount – well done them – and there was a lot of anticipation for the unveiling this month. As writer Bee Rowlatt, campaign leader, said: “People haven’t heard of Mary Wollstonecraft … that is actually quite shocking.”

Quite right. But was the aim of the statue to commemorate Mary – or get people talking about her? It’s very important to know what the objectives of a PR campaign or event are.

If the aim was just to get people talking, then it’s worked. Because of the widespread dislike of the statue, coverage spans the mainstream UK media and is generating ongoing debate on social media. And to be fair, by getting people talking, more people are learning about Mary’s legacy, which is fantastic. As Bee commented at the unveiling: “It will definitely start a conversation.”

However, many people are commenting on what is more important.

90% of the statues in London are (fully clothed) men. Why are so many female statues naked?

Only 3% of the few UK statues of women are non-royal. Mary’s achievements were extraordinary: is this tribute befitting of her? Could the statue not have been something more like the wonderful tribute to Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester? This piece is respectful, looks like the subject, reflects her work and draws visitors by the thousands. It generated a lot of media coverage and there was obviously no need to depict her naked. I can’t imagine anyone even suggesting it.

Art, by its very nature, is subjective, in order to get people talking. But art is also about the audience – and the subject. It should never be about the artist, who has now, thanks to this statue, become an intrinsic part of Mary’s ongoing story.

The immediate conversation will die down and the mainstream media will move on – but the small naked silver statue will remain plonked in the middle of the Stoke Newington park for years to come.

Obviously I wasn’t in the original strategy meeting for this campaign – but I hope they didn’t opt for this design (from an artist already known for her ‘out there’ approach) over the other, much more traditional, shortlisted choice of statue, just for shock tactics.

Sometimes we need to take a step back and look at whether the conversation, loud as it may be, is appropriate. Messaging in publicity is key.

In this case, even speaking as a PR professional, I would have voted for something that might have generated a bit less media coverage.

And more clothes.