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Alarm Bells – stunt slip-up at the Great North Run

It must have seemed a good idea at the time. AJ Bell, the popular investment platform and lead sponsor of the Great North Run, gave out miniature bells to hundreds of spectators lining the last mile of last Sunday’s race.

Doubtless the product of a marketing brainstorm, the idea was to have a visible and audible branded presence in front of the TV cameras. Plus, it was AJ Bell and it’s a bell. Geddit?

A bit of harmless fun which wouldn’t cause any problems, right?


No one had reckoned with Keith Turner’s attempt to enter the Guinness Book of Records for setting the fastest half marathon by an untethered blind runner. The plan was for Keith to be directed during the run by a loyal friend ringing bells on a stick in front of him. 

For the BBC and its four hours of live coverage, Keith’s story was TV gold. He was interviewed before and during the race, and the cameras were trained on him as he approached the finish straight.

The far-sighted among you may guess what happened next.

Confused by spectators ringing their AJ Bells, Keith had to stop running as he approached the finish line. With ringing sounds all around, he literally did not know which way to turn, all on live TV. It was a sad and concerning moment. While not specifically calling out AJ Bell, the commentator made it crystal clear what the cause of the problem was. 

For those of us in reputation management, it was cringeworthy viewing. For the marketing team of AJ Bell, it was a slow-motion car crash. Fortunately, there was a happy ending as Keith finally crossed the line in time for his record.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to accuse AJ Bell of a failure of crisis preparedness, of which scenario planning is a key ingredient. But would that really be reasonable?

Let’s be fair, it was an extraordinary set of circumstances and extraordinary bad luck which Nostradamus would have done well to predict. 

But as sponsorship managers know, all activations – and especially stunts – must be signed off by the event organisers. It was down to the GNR organisers to agree to the bells and in doing so, consider the implications. AJ Bell probably knew nothing of Keith’s record attempt but should have been told. There was a failure of stakeholder communications.

It once again underlines the value of having that third party overview. Someone to ask that annoying “what if…” question.  Someone to ring the alarm bell.

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