The Daily Mail’s campaign to deliver 42m pieces of PPE to NHS and care workers this year showed that “old media still has a role to play”, according to one of the journalists spearheading the drive.
The newspaper won the inaugural Public Service Award at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards 2020 for its Mail Force campaign, which raised £11.7m and delivered 42m pieces of PPE since its launch in April.
The awards judges said: “There are few news organisations in the world which can rival the Daily Mail for campaigning verve and sheer chutzpah when it takes on an issue.
“At a time when it felt like the country, and the newspaper industry, was on its knees the Mail showed that journalism can do far more than just expose the problems and shortcomings – it can channel its energy towards providing solutions, in this case in dramatic and potentially life-saving fashion.”
‘A very human campaign’
Mail columnist Robert Hardman (pictured), who helped run the campaign, told Press Gazette it showed “newspapers – traditional media, old media – still have a role to play”.
“People say deadwood media is on the way out and all the rest of it but – apologies to Facebook or Reddit or whatever if they’ve done something similar but I’m not aware of it – I do think newspapers have a relationship with their audience that can be a really powerful one when it needs to be….
“It was a very human campaign, I would say, and others were doing great stuff as well, I’m not pretending we were the only show in town, but we’re quite chuffed with the way it’s gone.”
The campaign saw practically every Mail journalist and photographer driving around the country to help deliver boxes of PPE and contributing to coverage so readers could see where their money was going.
Hardman, who met several planes of PPE on the runway, told Press Gazette: “I have to say I do take my hat off to the news editors at the Mail because there have been days when I’ve gone over to them and said we’ve got an exciting new PPE story and they’ve said this is a newspaper you know.
“There’s only a certain amount of news value in this sort of thing because people get appeal fatigue and there’s only so much you can say about a box of masks.
“A lot of what we’ve done has not been covered at all. Our lorries and vans have been out and delivering right until the end of January, and that won’t get a column inch but it’s still going on.”
No PR stunt
Hardman said the Mail had proved wrong the critics who claimed it was just a PR stunt after the its first front page declaring it had flown £1m worth of PPE supplies from China to Heathrow thanks to an initial influx of cash from DMGT chairman Viscount Rothermere and other donors.
“If it had been a PR stunt or something then we’d deserve getting a kick but this has been going on now for seven months…
“We were just the messenger,” Hardman said. “It was the readers who made this happen, not us.
“We set the ball rolling but it could have been a publicity stunt if it had stopped with that one airliner.
“But actually that first delivery amounted to 50,000 gowns and 100,000 masks and here we are 42m pieces of PPE later so that was anything but a publicity stunt, it was the first par of a fairly long story.”
It was also one of the most nerve-wracking moments for Hardman waiting to see if the full order would arrive, after soldiers took the batch before theirs straight off the factory production line in Shanghai.
‘It wasn’t just about the sums’
Hardman said the campaign exceeded expectations, despite knowing that readers would “really respond” due to their support for previous campaigns such as its call for a UK war memorial in Normandy for our D-Day heroes.
Mail Force raised more than £10m in its first 100 days. By comparison, all the UK national newspapers’ Christmas charity appeals in 2019 raised a total of £4.5m.
Hardman praised the speed with which readers sent in donations, saying they had inspired a second wave a couple of months later from philanthropists who had been waiting to see which Covid-19 causes to support.
“I didn’t expect to be going over £10m by June,” he said. “To begin with we’d got £1m in the pot and we were hoping the public would match that. I think if we’d raised £5m we would have been really pleased.
“But it wasn’t just about the sums, it was also about the ability to make a difference.”
As well as helping to protect healthcare workers, even setting up a distribution hub with the Salvation Army to get kit to charities like Marie Curie and Mencap, Hardman said the campaign had also “created a legacy” by investing in British businesses, placing the first orders with some who had pivoted to provide much-needed equipment.
“All along we wanted to try and get stuff homegrown,” Hardman said, noting that part of the problem at the start of the crisis was the difficulty competing for PPE coming from China in particular.
This also led to a number of self-imposed restrictions on what equipment to order, including making sure it was on Public Health England’s approved list and not buying from anyone who was already supplying the NHS as they “didn’t want to be competing against our own side”.
Donations were later used to buy specialist, fast-turnaround testing equipment for hospitals after the PPE crisis calmed down in the summer and testing became the issue of the day.
There were some setbacks, such as the discovery late on that the Chinese factory where one batch of face masks was produced had been linked to forced labour using Uyghur Muslims. Hardman said the team had “never touched their kit again”.
‘In times of crisis we rally round’
Hardman said the success of Mail Force was reminiscent of times the British public have rallied together, pointing to the “Saucepans for Spitfires” appeal in the Second World War which he called “an example of how the public want to come on board, they want to help”.
He said: “From the outset we were asking ourselves why are we doing the Government’s job for the Government, why should we expect our readers to effectively step in and do what they pay their taxes for, but we do have a tradition of this in Britain in times of crisis we all rally round.”
Hardman said his biggest learning to take into future campaigns is the importance of committed leadership at the top.
The idea came from chairman Viscount Rothermere and editor Geordie Greig who were incredibly moved by the early images of NHS nurses working in bin liners before coming down with Covid-19.
With this support from the top “everything falls into place”, Hardman said.
Now that the donations have all been accounted for, with the final deliveries continuing until the end of January, the Mail Force charity is being mothballed for now.
But it remains available to be picked up again in the face of any future crisis.
“If there’s another pandemic, if there’s another national shortage of something, and it’s something we can respond to then we are there,” Hardman. “Pick up the phone and off we go again.
“But hopefully not for a while. We don’t want to be needed.”
Picture: Mark Large/Daily Mail