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The Guardian University Award winners were released at the end of February and we’ve picked out a few of our favourite winning universities projects to profile during the week.

We’re starting off with the overall winner in the Communications Campaign category, the University of East Anglia, with a project that showed fantastic innovation and use of new technology with a range of PR and marketing techniques to get their campaign off the ground – all in a very limited timeframe, no easy task!

The Guardian said:

“In October 2012, a country of nature lovers was shocked to discover that its Ash trees were at risk. Ash dieback disease had travelled to the UK from Europe, threatening to devastate the nation’s forests.

“At the University of East Anglia (UEA), the Adapt Low Carbon Group working with volunteer developers IAS-ESS decided to create AshTag, a free smartphone app to crowdsource disease reports and build up a picture of exactly where Ash trees were being affected. The app allows users to take pictures of diseased trees and send them directly to scientists; it also includes a visual guide to help people recognise the symptoms, and uses geo-tagging software to provide a precise location for each tree suspected of infection.”


Of course creating this fantastic app was just one part of the battle – now they needed the public to know about it, download it and use it. Queue a very quickly put together, but excellently thought-out, publicity campaign by the UEA press team.

In just a few days the AshTag team had planned and launched a press campaign, taking advantage of currant news stories in the media and public concern.

“The Ash dieback story had already captured huge public interest, and journalists were keen to find new angles to keep the story going,” explained media relations manager Lisa Horton. “We emphasised to the AshTag team that if they wanted their app out there, they’d need to be willing to talk on-air about it, and be ready to respond at very short notice to media requests from all over the country.”

….And the requests rolled in. The team worked around the clock to take calls from the media and respond to their requests. Coverage was achieved on Farming Today, Channel 4 News, CNN, Autumnwatch, Sky News and across national and regional print media.

Within two weeks 12,000 people had downloaded the app and 22,000 people had visited the website. Social media also played an important role – there was a separate Ashtag Twitter page created, and celebrity re-tweets only helped push the campaign further.

What can we learn from the AshTag campaign?

  1. Technology is key: The University could have decided to do an online petition, or a simple press campaign with research based press releases (all perfectly reasonable ideas) – but instead they tapped into the newer trend of the App. This really caught the imagination of the public and the media. It also made it easy for people to get involved with the campaign simply by using their SmartPhone. Think outside the box – it needn’t cost a fortune to get a simple App developed, and they have all sorts of uses.
  2. Marrying modern and traditional marketing tactics: Having tapped into the modern App trend the press team went back to basics with a good old fashioned press campaign. Nothing new or outside the box here. They simply put together regular press releases and organised press interviews. Alongside this they used social platforms such as Twitter to push out the message – a great mix of marketing tactics in action.
  3. Timing is everything: The AshTag App launch jumped on the back of current news stories on the topic and a sudden rise in concern amongst the public about losing Britain’s Ash trees. You can’t put a price on this – it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. But if you want great publicity for your company or organisation you need to be willing to act fast and move quickly to make the most of jumping on the back of a media band-wagon.
  4. Hard work pays off: This whole campaign proves you can put something professional together very quickly if you put your mind to it – all it takes it a great idea, a simple PR plan and plenty of hard work. The staff in the press team certainly had to put extra hours during the campaign to ensure they responded to the media’s thirst for the story. It certainly paid off.