From Spice Girls to Walt Disney

Dave Coombs
Dave Coombs

Sean Ball speaks to Dave Coombs, Head of UK & EMEA Publicity for Disney Destinations International (DDI), about his journey into public relations.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got to where you are today?

I started my professional life as a journalist in 1992 and had to do quite a lot of unpaid work initially to show I was committed. After that, I worked on children’s supplements for national newspapers like The Telegraph and The Sunday Times. I also dabbled in broader consumer journalism.

I mainly focused on entertainment and travel news and features not just for kid’s pages but also main sections of papers and magazines too like OK! and Heat – I actually helped launch the Heat World website in 2007.

Shortly after that, I got a call from a friend asking me if I’d be interested in going on tour with the Spice Girls, who were just about to reform. I of course said yes, and was tasked with creating content for and driving traffic to their website.

So without even consciously thinking about it, I went from being a journalist to a PR person virtually overnight.

Until that point, I had always reported on the message, making sure readers understood it, whereas I had become the message creator. Most of the things we published during that tour received attention from national media the next day.

After that I was offered an opportunity to work at AOL’s Bebo, again writing and editing engaging content for youngsters, which suited me very well.

The biggest project I worked on was sending the first democratically created message into space! People have sent messages into space in the past, but there hadn’t been an opportunity for the public to contribute to the message.

We picked the top 500 messages, as voted for by Bebo users, packaged them up into binary code and beamed them to the nearest planet that could potentially hold life, which is called Gliese 581C.

We managed to get the Scott Mills Show and Danny Wallace Show involved. We even managed to get the BBC to cover it and do an eight minute report, which as we all know can be very tricky, but because the power was in Bebo users’ hands, the story was legitimate news.

We finally went off to Ukraine where Europe’s largest satellite dish is and from the Space Centre of Ukraine we beamed the message off into space. It will take twenty and a half years to get there.

When did you start working at Disney Destinations International?

It’s been about five years now, so it must’ve 2009. I’ve been Head of Publicity since August 2012.

How has the organisation changed since you’ve been there?

Well the values haven’t changed, that’s why the brand endures because it has inspirational core values, which translate from generation to generation. Disney has wonderful, timeless foundations that are then complemented with innovative ways of thinking and working in order to stay relevant.

From a DDI standpoint, we try to keep our brands relevant for journalists, editors and programme makers. That task is helped a lot by our amazing colleagues in the US and in Paris, who create new and wonderful attractions, new parades, content and music.

How have things changed? Well, there is always the constant need to be fresh and different, or we haven’t done our jobs properly!

The economic times have meant everyone faces new challenges. But I’ve experienced three recessions throughout my career and while it can mean adapting to working with fewer resources, it also hones the mind to think in a different way.

You can create effective campaigns with fewer resources, and that’s where I think your skills as a PR professional are tested.

Are there any examples that you can think of where you have still managed to generate great coverage with a limited budget?

Well, there was a stunt we did in 2011 as part of a campaign to encourage people to celebrate Halloween at Disneyland Paris.

We grew Mickey Mouse shaped pumpkins, which was the first time it had ever been done in Europe (although I must admit, we originally saw the idea in Walt Disney World in Florida!).

We found a farmer who was happy to help us and it was a very cost-effective stunt. We managed to get coverage on BBC News, ITV News, all the local media in the area of Lincolnshire, where they were grown, as well as some great national newspapers too.

I think austere times inspire you to dredge your creativity a bit harder. While I don’t want to work in a recession forever, I do sometimes think it can hone the mind.

As Head of Publicity for DDI, are you responsible for all of the PR operations across EMEA?

We cover three brands: Disneyland Paris, Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and Walt Disney Cruise Line.

My team and I handle UK corporate and consumer PR for Disneyland Paris. We are the UK press team and the EMEA team for Walt Disney World and for Disney Cruise Line, so that means it’s our job to ensure that the other European teams are fully supported in localising PR campaigns for those two brands.

How has the way in which DDI executes its PR campaigns changed since you started?

Our team across DDI sales and marketing is very collaborative, and since I began working here it has become more so, which means that our PR campaigns are even more integrated with the core business drivers than ever. As a team I also encourage those around me to really think big so that we can bring success to our PR that raises the bar and creates waves. We’re all aiming to generate those “water cooler moments” that generate real word-of-mouth publicity, and in my time with the team we’ve scored at least two.

How do you measure your success?

I always want to do things we’ve never done before, so my personal KPI (key performance indicator) is breaking fresh ground – doing something that we potentially thought was unachievable.

A few years ago, my leader suggested that we should try to get The X Factor to come to a Disney Park. At the time, we thought this would be impossible because of the show format and Ofcom restrictions. After a year and a half of internal discussions and then eight months of negotiation with the The X Factor production team, the crazy idea became a reality.

The widely used KPIs in the PR industry are all going to change because until now they have always been ‘audience reach’ or ‘opportunities to see (OTS)’ or even (unfortunately) ‘AVEs.’

I think for print and TV, those measures are fairly accurate, however some of the online numbers are a little out of control. Just because the homepage of a website is seen by 12 million people, that does not mean that 12 million people have seen your story.

When someone says ‘Oh 200 million people saw that,’ you just think ‘Really?! Did they?’ Did three times the population of the UK see it? Probably not.

I think there is a need for a comprehensive measurement standard that can analyse all of the different types of media.

At present however, I would say we need to take a bit of a mosaic approach when considering KPIs. Just slapping an OTS figure on a campaign does not necessarily reflect impact, which is ultimately what we are all aiming for – maximum impact to the right consumer.

Do you manage the social media presence of the parks?

No, it’s generally handled locally by the parks themselves. We will feed Grace Yee and the social media team content, which is posted onto the Disney For Mums or Disney Family UK Facebook pages.

The parks themselves are great at creating on-going entertaining and engaging dialogue with guests. Those pages are loyally followed because they tap into what that community loves about the parks and so they do deliver a really nice social experience so that people are reminded of how great being at a Disney Park.

What would you say you enjoy most about your job?

First of all, I didn’t plan to get here. An amazing opportunity at Disney presented itself and here I am! In my opinion, I work for the best theme parks and destination brand in the world, and I genuinely believe that.

Working on a fantastic, world-class product and being able to provide media with genuinely engaging material and stories is just amazing. It doesn’t get much better than that in PR.

I really enjoy working with my team, they’re a fantastic, motivated and talented group. We push each other all the time to do better, we’re critical of our projects in a supportive and constructive way and I think that’s a really healthy atmosphere to work in.

How do you see the relationship between PR and the media changing in future?

PR’s relationship with the media is a strange one because we need each other but our agendas can sometimes seem different but there’s a way to solve that, which is good media relations. I love getting to know colleagues in the media better and working with them to make sure we deliver stories that they will use and that will excite them. One thing that hasn’t changed since I began working in media in the early 1990s though, is that a great news story is still always going to get pick-up.

A big question you have to ask yourself at the moment is, is this content shareable? There’s actually a difference between the stories people read and the stories they share and say they read. But stories that are widely shared become part of the news agenda, so highly shareable content is something that PR people are aiming for.

And as we’ve seen happen already, as technology advances, the media landscape will continue to change. There will be new forms of media that we haven’t even thought of yet. I guess the way in which we as communicators respond will either make or break our industry.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring young professionals?

Work on things that motivate and inspire you because it’s hard to put the graft in and really commit to something if you’re not interested in it.

Never dismiss what people tell you, you never know where the next great piece of advice or information is going to come from. It can come from anywhere, anytime so be as open-minded as you possibly can be.

Everyone says all these funny little clichés like ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you’ve got.’ Well if you strip all of that back, it boils down to the fact that if you are doing something that you really want to do, then you will succeed. The people around you will recognise that and will help you move forward.

Try and get as much experience as you can when you are relatively young – don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

Also ask people questions. When you ask people questions, they will probably say stuff that you just won’t hear in passing. It’s really worth sitting down with people and asking for advice. That way, you’ll be remembered too!

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