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A Firecracker of an idea

The Business Trust's annual Long Run, now recognised as South Africa's biggest corporate event, has become a local institution, yet most people still know little about the people or ideas which gave rise to this phenomenal event.

The Old Shanghai Firecracker Factory CEO, Gail Curtis, who created the concept, said the idea evolved as the solution to a tricky problem almost four years ago: "We just didn't have a big enough budget to reach everyone we needed to reach to give the Business Trust the coverage they needed."

Media director Margaret Ashwin explained that their primary target market was corporate decision makers, but that there was also a general feeling among the populous that business was not doing enough in South Africa - a perception that had to be addressed.

"We had to get the general populous to become aware that business is working in tandem with government and create a self-perpetuating circle of good publicity which would make businesses more keen to get involved, government keener to participate and the community responding to this momentum," Ashwin said.

Unfortunately the budget only allowed a communications strategy to fulfill the first mandate: stakeholders had to visibly see where their money was going.

"We realised that we needed to create a powerful platform from which to promote the Business Trust and to demonstrate the value and significance of the partnership between business and government," Curtis said.

"We had to think out of the box to develop a communications programme to fulfill the rest of the task; we had to create something newsworthy because traditional advertising was too expensive and good news stories just don't sell.

"So we devised a mechanism that the media would buy into and the Long Run was born, achieving exactly what traditional advertising could not by not only informing consumers, but transforming their experience of the trust and its function."

A tandem bike, called Sizanani, (working together) was built to symbolise the partnership between government and business. Government officials, corporate businessmen and celebrities ride this bike each year in a "Long Run" across the country to build awareness of the project.

Brenda Kennedy, who co-ordinates the event, said: "The commitment we get from South Africans - officials, celebrities and the ordinary people alongside the roads - is extraordinary. We simply could not achieve what we do without them and it makes me proud to be a South African."

"This project has taken communications to a new level, demonstrating how thinking out of the box with a simple idea can have extraordinary results," Curtis said.

Ashwin said the media have been exceptionally supportive, but that it was made easier for them because they had material that was newsworthy.

Curtis believes that there is space for the traditional media campaign and is still using radio and television to underscore Business Trust principles, but there's been a blurring of the PR role: "By approaching people from a media standpoint, we have been able to significantly enhance the exposure of the project."

"The total media value achieved was R5 million, about double the expenditure, and more exposure that we could ever have achieved with that budget," Curtis said.

"One-on-one advertising is very expensive, but that's exactly what the Long Run does; it physically touches peoples' lives where a traditional media campaign is usually static," Curtis concluded.

The challenge of this year's communication plan is to convey the results achieved over the last five years and to build confidence and commitment among the key stakeholders into the future.

Kennedy has been planning the logistics for the last five months and starts flying in teams next week for the unique west to east run planned from Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park to the Kruger National Park.

The Business trust is an initiative of SA business working in partnership with government to undertake targeted job creation and human capacity development in the specific areas of tourism, education, malaria control and crime prevention. The Business Trust was a five-year initiative which would have ended this year, but has been extended to continue for another five years, a tribute to its successes.

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