This summer has been plastic fantastic as Barbie-mania swept the world. The self-titled film has grossed over $1bn, cementing director Greta Gerwig as the only woman in history to have directed a billion-dollar film and inspiring the portmanteau ‘Barbillion’. Of course, this iconic doll has never needed an introduction – her reputation has always preceded her.

Barbie is a cultural phenomenon, but her public image hasn’t always been favourable – historically, she has been criticised for promoting unrealistic beauty standards. With her legacy spanning over sixty years, reshaping Barbie’s reputation was no easy or small feat. Yet, the film didn’t just manage to achieve this; it completely upended the public’s perception of what she represents. By boldly acknowledging the past, and renewing her powerhouse brand with new messaging, Barbie’s reputation as we knew it was transformed.

A Barbie-licious Trojan horse

Strong brand imagery speaks for itself, and as the film’s promotion began, Barbie’s image seemed to be as bubblegum pink as ever. Plastering her brand everywhere – and generating those associated feelings of childhood nostalgia – was the hook to begin reshaping her reputation; nothing was pink without purpose. A real-life Malibu Dreamhouse and a Pink Burger were two of the endless collaborations that sparked Barbie fever. It was even reported that the amount of pink paint used in the film’s set designs caused a worldwide shortage.

With the public’s attention captured, trailers and clips were phased in teasing surprisingly feminist messaging as Barbie journeyed from the matriarchal Barbieland to the patriarchal “real world”. In interviews, cast members highlighted how Barbie was originally made to inspire girls into pursuing careers and financial independence, making her a feminist role model.

Breadcrumbing this messaging was a reminder that Barbie was created as a force for good; maybe the public had been too harsh on her. But a reputation cannot be reshaped by simply sweeping criticism under the carpet. For Barbie’s reputational revamp to be a success, the brand needed to acknowledge its less-than-perfect past.

Addressing the pink elephant in the room

The Barbie trailer featured a surprising message: “If you love Barbie, this film is for you. If you hate Barbie, this film is for you”. When the film finally released, the public flocked to the cinema in their pinkest finery – I, of course, was one of them. The anticipation had reached a fever high, and audiences sat with bated breath.

The trailer’s trace of self-awareness at Barbie’s past reputation unfolded into a full-blown acknowledgement tinged with shock tactics. As she ventures into the “real world”, she believes she has made a positive impact on women’s lives. Instead, she harshly learns of her poor reputation, with teenage character Sasha even calling her a “fascist”.

To spotlight Barbie’s past in such a direct manner was shockingly bold, but like everything else, it wasn’t without purpose. Yes, public perception vilified Barbie – but it wasn’t unjustified. Barbie was created to inspire girls, but she’d missed the mark and her reputation had paid the price. As audiences were wondering how on earth maker Mattel allowed this scene to play out, the film moved into its final phase of her reputational overhaul.

Bringing Barbie to life (literally)

When reshaping a reputation as infamous as Barbie’s, authenticity is non-negotiable. It implies honesty and integrity, and a determination to not have her future impact replicate her past.

Barbie’s emotionally charged pièce de resistance came at the very end: the doll holds creator Ruth Handler’s hands and takes her first breaths, interspersed with a montage of real women and girls. In this moment, Barbie – a plastic and inherently inauthentic doll – is humanised. Suddenly, she is no longer an unreachable idea of perfection; she is just like every other girl and woman. And she is for everyone.

To highlight Barbie’s past reputation without actually doing anything about it would’ve been in poor taste – audiences would’ve been left with the shock factor, but no substance. Instead, the blend of heritage brand imagery and powerful message reverberated through cinemagoers. Barbie had entered a new era.

There’s no doubt that Barbie, and its promotional rollout, were engineered to reshape the doll’s image. The film was somehow everything and nothing like I expected it to be, but it’s no surprise that this gargantuan reputational overhaul was a success. Whilst its long-term impact is yet to be determined, this summer affirmed that, love her or hate her, it really is Barbie’s world – we’re all just living in it.

Loneliness. A feeling that most people have experienced at some point in their life. Nearly half of England’s adult population, according to Campaign to End Loneliness, a startling 45%, express feeling lonely occasionally and sometimes even often. Needless to say, the crisis of loneliness and social disconnect was only further exacerbated during the height of the pandemic with strict isolation and social-distancing measures being implemented. 

The good news is that from 9th July- 1st August 2022, it is Free Hugs Month. The Free Hugs Campaign began in 2004, founded by an Australian man under the pseudonym Juan Mann, where volunteers offer hugs to complete strangers in public as a random act of kindness. The aim? To spread the love.  

According to scientists, the benefits of hugging go far beyond that warm, fuzzy feeling you get from being in somebody’s arms. Hugs have been shown to reduce stress, protect against illness, boost heart health, release the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin which leads to feelings of contentment, and even reduce pain. In fact, according to family therapist Virginia Satir, humans need four hugs per day for basic survival, eight for maintenance and 12 for growth. So yes, hugs seem like a win-win, if not an absolute necessity. But what does this have to do with leading a successful campaign? Well bear (hug) with me and I’ll explain… 

As a successful B2C campaign, the Free Hugs Campaign has been going strong for nearly two decades. So, from a PR perspective, there’s still a lot we can learn in the B2B space. After all, businesses might be selling to other businesses, but it’s important to note that it’s still humans talking to other humans, The secret behind the campaign’s success is predominantly down to two factors: creating a campaign that encourages a level of ‘shareability’ and evoking an emotional response from potential clients and customers.  


The Free Hugs Campaign has not shied away from the public gaze and our culture of sharing, capturing, and recording anything attention-grabbing for others to view online.  Instead, the campaign used the way in which the public interact to its advantage. In other words, for a campaign with a minimal budget, the Free Hugs Campaign left the public to share and interact with their simple message themselves.  

But, of course, not all brands fit into this style of campaign ‘shareability’. Fortunately, however, social media has become our biggest ally and can produce incredible traction if a campaign’s message is eye-catching, memorable, and simple to understand. Even a snappy slogan or retweet can go a long way.  

But the question then is, what is it about the Free Hugs Campaign that has made it stand the test of time, and go viral with 78 million views in the Sick Puppies music video alone?  

Human element 

The secret behind this campaign is very clear, yet mystifyingly under-used in many campaigns- understanding and manipulating the power of human psychology, especially that of the buyer. What are most people lacking? Human connection and a feeling of belonging and comfort. What does the Free Hugs Campaign offer? An answer to a societal hug deficiency.  

The campaign isn’t complex, in fact, oftentimes the simpler a campaign, the better. The Free Hugs Campaign, touches its audience in an emotive way, giving them a feeling or emotion that was lacking in their life, whilst also adding an element of joy. After all, who doesn’t secretly like to make someone’s day by being kind and loving? Through evoking this emotion, it taps into our intrinsic nature to share the joy, even if just virtually.  

As such, it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of your buyer, such as the HR Director you are trying to grab the attention of. Perhaps they are feeling overwhelmed with how post-Covid life has completely transformed their workforce, and as a result, are operating at a million miles an hour unable to catch a breath… 

So, what are you waiting for? Get hugging!  

By the time you’re reading this, all UK organisations that employ 250 people or more have (or should have) published their gender pay gap. More than 10,000 large firms have provided details of their gender pay gap and so far, the results have shown that three-quarters of them pay men more than women. Yet despite the legal requirement to submit these figures, there is no obligation for organisations to take action and reduce their gender pay gap.

However, if they fail to address it, their brand and reputation may be affected.

It’s all in the narrative

Instead of producing results as just part of a compliance exercise, organisations may choose to seize the opportunity to tackle their gender pay gap and set concrete targets for closing the gap. Above and beyond the obvious reason for doing this – it’s the right thing to do – organisations should consider the impact on their brand if they don’t correct their failings. A weak brand can make retaining and attracting talent a difficult task, resulting in high levels of staff turnover, increased marketing and communications costs and an unproductive workforce.

However, once you’ve been walking the walk and not just talking the talk, then you should make sure that people know about the ‘new you’. So, with that in mind, how can companies start building (or re-building) their employer brand and, of course, how can marketing and PR help?

Shout about it

Many organisations overcoming the gender pay gap will have put coaching programmes in place to ensure female staff are successful in all areas of the business. However, a crucial step is not only to be a coach, but also an advocate for female representation across the company. For example, when profiling female staff in external press, don’t just allow male staff to talk about how the company has overcome the gender pay gap – put forward female staff and those from diverse backgrounds to speak with the media. For instance, Stylist magazine has a section called ‘A day in the life’, where the team profiles employees in various job roles, not just senior management. This variety will not only show diversity in your organisations, but it frequently leads to the unearthing of interesting and unusual stories. Your organisation may also be in the fortunate situation where the gender pay gap has never been an issue – and if that’s the case, encourage your female advocates to shout about this in the press too! Show off your USPs and the fact you’re ahead of the legislation.

Similarly, spend some time doing media training and preparing employees to speak with media – and use a cross-section of staff. For example, put forward someone from tech support or business development to give potential employees a different perspective of your organisation. This also gives employees from different levels a chance to represent the company and express their opinions, which will be seen as a positive aspect of working at the company by potential recruits.

Consistency is key

If you want to attract top talent to your company, it’s key to be consistent in your messaging. Any potential candidates will likely take a look at your social media channels to gauge what your company’s culture is like and will judge you based on the messages that you share. Include any company updates such as company away days, new hires and events on your page as well as interesting and engaging blog posts, videos and pictures that are relevant to your company or industry. Authenticity is important and can act as a big differentiator when employers claim they have an excellent company culture.

Twitter is an important social channel to focus on when building your employer brand. We recommend giving your employees Twitter guides, detailing how they should represent the brand online, but with room to allow for personalities to shine through.

Keep an eye out

Do you co-manage Glassdoor with HR? If not, you should. Platforms like Glassdoor give you the opportunity to manage company profiles, so you can include messages that align with other marketing activity. It can also influence strategy and give you an idea of how to strengthen the brand and address or counter weaknesses that arise from public feedback. Through PR and HR co-managing the company Glassdoor profile, you can ensure there are no discrepancies between your messaging and employee reviews – and if there are, address the reviewers accordingly. This shows that you take feedback seriously and aim to resolve any issues that your employees face while working at your organisation.

Whether the impact of the gender pay gap affects your business or not, building a consistent and transparent employer brand is essential in the fight for talent – as a nation built on the services industry, most challenges that brands face eventually come down to people. Improving your employer branding will increase employee engagement by showing employees that they work at a great company, but it will also help retain and recruit talent and ensure that there is consistency in messages, values and behaviour. Ultimately, this can only lead to company success!

Game of ThronesSeason 3 of HBO’s hugely popular Game of Thrones came to a close in June leaving fans facing a year without its array of lovable dwarves, scheming eunuchs and masochistic monarchs. This hit TV series is renowned for top-notch British talent, casual nudity and – as many a shell-shocked viewer can confirm – a proclivity for violently disposing of its heroes. What’s occurred to me recently, however, is that Game of Thrones also contains some crucial lessons in PR.


Each of the noble houses in the fictional continent of Westeros has a motto that is repeated time and again by ‘high’ and ‘low’ born characters alike. These words unquestionably define the way that the competing dynasties view not only each other, but also themselves.

For the Starks, the words “winter is coming” reflect them: no-nonsense, northern strongmen who guard the realm against what lies beyond ‘The Wall’ – exactly the reputation they want.

Conversely, House Tyrell’s words, “growing strong” are altogether less memorable.  When combined with their emblem (a rose) their branding utterly fails to convey the dynamism and ambition of the house, a failure that Diana Rigg’s character Lady Olenna muses about in season 3.

For PRs, the lesson to be drawn is obvious: take time to craft a clear, memorable message and make sure you hammer it in to people (metaphorically speaking of course).

Winter Is Coming

Twitter doesn’t exist in Game of Thrones but if it did, you can be sure that #winteriscoming would regularly trend, given how often the phrase is uttered by a wide range of characters.

Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.

Lord Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, is one of Game of Thrones’ most interesting characters: a scheming grasper from a minor house with a talent for befriending the right people, even in the midst of a civil war.  In a tête-à-tête with his nemesis Varys, Littlefinger exposes his ruthless opportunism, arguing that for him “chaos isn’t a pit – chaos is a ladder”.  This chaos-mantra does raise an important point for PRs: be ready to take advantage of news as it breaks around you. We work in an industry so completely enmeshed with news and current affairs – judging the right opportunities to seize in order to promote your client is a key skill for success. Littlefinger is the ultimate issue-hijacker. The obvious caveat here is that Littlefinger is a man of dubious morality – a Machiavellian menace of infamous ambition. As PRs in the modern world we need to be altogether more scrupulous about which issues we hijack and why.


The night is dark and full of terrors

So, you’ve crafted a clear and powerful message and incorporated it into everything you do. You’re also totally abreast of the news agenda and are ready to respond to any opportunity that arises. All good, right? Wrong. As Red Priestess Melisandre likes to remind us (repeatedly): ‘the night is dark and full of terrors’.  A very appropriate slogan coming from someone who can dispatch shadows to murder her unsuspecting enemies mid-sentence.

This is the final PR lesson from Game of Thrones: beware of the ‘unknown unknowns’. Crises can come out of nowhere, and you need to be ready to respond. All the messaging and issue-hijacking in the world won’t save your client’s reputation if you fail to appropriately deal with a sudden turn of events – something Melisandre’s victims can attest to.


This weekend, I received an email from Trendwatching, the monthly trends newsletter (you can sign up here).

The November topic itself interested me; it being about “Presumers” – a term for the consumers who want to engage with products and services pre-launch.  Passionately supporting, pushing, promoting and sometimes even funding brands, these are the people giving love to the products and services before the mainstream launch, or even before they’re fully conceived.

The piece itself is well worth a read.  I enjoyed thinking about how much the concept of “early adopters” (as brands used to talk about, and try to reach) has moved on; for an age where brands have so much more of a direct voice with a wider consumer audience.  And it struck me that really, Presumers are the natural result of more consumer opportunity to converse direct with brands.  You will inevitably get the “pick me please!” consumers, who want more direct engagement with their chosen products and services.

But what really got me thinking was how Trendwatching so efficiently delivered their monthly trend to me – and how much alignment there was with a well-delivered news story.

It used to be really important for public relations agencies to help brands to create compelling “stories” for their communications campaigns; it was the key to getting your clients media coverage.  Identifying and telling the right stories is still hugely important in PR of course, but in this media-rich universe, it’s also about working it as hard as possible, to really get the stories out there…

More than ever, anyone delivering a story has to think about optimum timing.  It should no longer be for brands, just about issuing a story/news for the next day’s papers, or being aware of the editorial deadlines of the weekly trade publications.  It is now as much a case of utilising a social media and online strategy to drive that story to the national/print press agenda, as it is co-ordinating an offline strategy with a faster-moving online strategy.

It is also about making the information really easily shared.  Going back to the Trendwatching monthly trend.  Trendwatching put together a PowerPoint presentation (that mainstay of the media and marketing worlds) and shared it on Slideshare.  It created a 1-minute infographic, for those who wanted it bite-size and/or visual.  When I checked Twitter, of course the “Presumers” piece had been tweeted.  When I checked Linked In, the piece had of course been shared there.  All at the same time as the email newsletter had hit inboxes.  Very slick.

So Trendwatching’s content distribution got me thinking; and reminded me about what the best PR campaigns do…  Yes, PR is about creating news around your client’s product and service.  And making that as relevant and newsworthy as possible to the right audience, is as huge part of our job.  But increasingly, so too is distributing the news in the right way.  Taking the newsworthy content we create and making it as accessible as possible, via the most appropriate routes.

That’s what creates cut-through in this cluttered space, and that’s what gets PR bang for your buck.

Public Relations has moved from a typically creative function towards a more calculated, measurable discipline. This change has happened quickly, and is a symptom of the movement towards accountability, accountability, accountability. A sub-conscious butterfly effect, it’s gradually swept across minds in both the private and public sectors as regulation increases and budgets tighten. And rightly so:, it’s a tough market and there is no room for partners who don’t understand that every penny spent, needs to be used wisely.

So what does this new, more accountable world look like? Well, for starters, PR practitioners are aligning much more closely to the sales function. The sales funnel has been around for a long time. It’s the principle that customers and prospects should be approached in different ways at each stage of a (typically) 4-stage process.

The stage that a prospect fits into is determined by their exposure to/interaction with the business. At Firefly, when we engage new clients, we look closely at the maturity of their prospects within the sales funnel and develop content appropriate to their level of awareness or understanding. How aware of your brand are prospective decision-makers? How engaged are they with your brand and services? How desirable is your offering to the person you’re speaking to? To be truly effective, each stage of the process requires different content and platforms. For example, word of mouth is the best way to encourage buy-in at the engagement stage. We are increasingly advising clients to engage their customers in PR programmes. It’s the third party expert, your prospects’ peer that will engage a new party in your business.

It can be argued that good PR practitioners are aligning themselves more closely to the business, by setting content KPIs that match the expectations of the sales funnel. This process is clear, it’s rational, and it makes sense. Doesn’t it?!

On the whole, the answer is yes. However, all too often the brand building communications is passed by too quickly in favour of ‘hard’ deliverables to directly support the sales efforts. Critically, the awareness stage sets the initial expectation; it creates the backdrop against which the subsequent stages come into play. From a communications perspective, I think of the sales funnel as if shrouded in a bubble of brand awareness and sentiment. For this reason the value of brand should not be underestimated.

While the sales funnel does help to focus the mind and refine objectives of the marketing team, it should not be used as an ‘absolute’ tool against which to marry your marketing. Stifling brand awareness through creativity will damage the effectiveness of your sales-generation campaigns in the medium-term.


Is it time to shape your reputation?

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