Helsingin Sanomat targets Trump, Putin with “Land of the Free Press” campaign

By Veera Siivonen

Helsingin Sanoma

Helsinki, Finland

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Editor’s note: As judges make their final selections for finalists in INMA’s Global Media Awards, we take a look back at last year’s winner.

Free press is under threat now in the free world. Presidents Trump and Putin, known for their critical stances toward press freedom, held their first official summit in Helsinki, Finland, in July 2018. We at Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat wanted to send them a message. 

We created an outdoor campaign that targeted the two presidents directly as they drove from the airport to the summit. We placed 300 billboards along their route, containing real headlines from our newspaper regarding their relationships with the media, including: “Trump calls media the enemy of the people” and “Putin shuts down Russia’s biggest news agency.”

The campaign targeted Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump with real headlines from Helsingin Sanomat translated into English and Russian. Three possible routes from the airport to the summit location were covered with signs, since the official route was a secret.
The campaign targeted Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump with real headlines from Helsingin Sanomat translated into English and Russian. Three possible routes from the airport to the summit location were covered with signs, since the official route was a secret.

Freedom of speech is one of our core values and freedom of the press is a fundamental prerequisite for our work. Compromised press freedom means a compromised role of the press in supporting democracy. With this campaign, we stepped up to fight back and show our support to colleagues who are being suppressed. Free press is not currently a pressing issue in our own market, but it could be and it has been. 

Our newspaper has been censored in the past and even shut down. When our predecessor, Päivälehti, was shut down by the Russian regime in the beginning of the 20th century (Finland was not yet independent then), the founders bravely started a new newspaper with a new brand name, Helsingin Sanomat, just a few days from the closure. They took a big risk challenging the closing like that, and we are proud of them and our history.

Press freedom is like clean air: The majority of the audience only notices it when it is gone, unless we talk about it. 

That’s why we aimed to draw as much attention as possible with this campaign for press freedom. And we got it. More than 2,600 articles in 55 countries, from the United States to India and including Russia, covered the story of our billboards in a wide range of media, including CNN, Globo Media, and The Economist. This amounted in total to an earned reach of 1.25 billion and 1 million social interactions. 

We also received a positive bump for our own brand. Our brand index stepped up by 33%, our new subscriptions sales grew +19% vs. the previous year, and fueled by the boost in positive image, our business-to-business sales surpassed targets and the previous trends. 

We did not plan all of this. It was an outcome of living by our values. Making the campaign was not a walk in the park. It was done in two weeks during the holiday season, out of which half needed to be reserved for the printing of the posters, so actually there was just a week to plan the campaign.

How was it possible do this kind of a campaign so fast?

First of all, when the idea was out, there was no way to dismiss it. We could not pass up the original idea from our advertising agency, TBWA Helsinki, which was so brilliant: to tell the presidents with real headlines, “This is your story in the country of no fake news.” We at Helsingin Sanomat immediately loved it, but with the twist that the campaign would be more simply about press freedom rather than fake news.

The headlines had a common theme: The presidents’ relationships with the media.
The headlines had a common theme: The presidents’ relationships with the media.

A few days later, our editorial management further simplified the concept by taking out all the other headlines than those about media, and so the campaign and the message we sent out became very clear.

What made the campaign successful:

  • Hitting our core values. We could not dismiss this idea in good conscience. It was a chance to live up to our core values and bravely show our dedication to them. Values are something you are willing to take risks for — and even lose business for.

  • Tight cooperation of great talent. It was important that we have such a close relationship with our advertising agency and a team there that also shares our values. This project allowed no time for organisational barriers. Our talented teams at Helsingin Sanomat and the agency worked seamlessly together, so it is difficult to say who did what in the end. We also got great support from the outdoor billboard companies. These competitors cooperated on the project with each other like never before.

  • Fast decision making. We could do a project like this because we did not need to ask any committees for permission or money, so we were able to make quick decisions. Key stakeholders were informed, and they could have stopped us, but they didn’t. We were addressing the leaders of the United States and Russia, so there were public relations risks involved, but they trusted us to do it.

If company values and fundamentals are at risk, the decision not to defend them has to be better justified than the decision to defend them.

About Veera Siivonen