Will 2020’s “silly season” be disrupted by Coronavirus?

Jeremy Corbyn and his massive marrow

For all the talk of the ‘new normal’ in 2020, one area that seems to have been overlooked is the media’s so-called ‘silly season’. So far this year, much of the news agenda has been dedicated to fast-paced reporting of serious issues. So are we going to see the traditional late summer silliness in our favourite publications? Or will current affairs dictate a more serious tone?

A cursory look at Wikipedia will tell you that the first written account of the term ‘silly season’ came in 1861. It remains in popular use today. Although in some other places, it is apparently better known as cucumber time ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

In the UK especially, the silly season is the period in late summer typified by the emergence of frivolous news stories in the media. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable – where the term first appeared – gives us a little more colour, defining the silly season as ‘the part of the year when Parliament and the Law Courts are not sitting (about August and September)’.

The best silly season stories

Even if you’re sitting there thinking, what is he blethering on about, you’ll be aware of the kind of stories I mean. Those too odd to be real, but just about believable stories that are often talked about at length with friends at the pub. If they were earlier in the year, you’d think they were April Fools’ jokes, and have creative PR people’s fingerprints all over them.

One of the silly season staples is the Russian President’s summer holiday escapades. Whether it’s pictures of a bare-chested Putin on horseback, in judo gear, or engaging in some other ‘masculine’ pursuit, the oft-criticised head of state features regularly in silly season stories.

Pointless world records are popular too – whether it’s pictures of politicians with particularly large vegetables, or an entire rugby team crammed in to a small hatchback. If the Guinness team is adjudicating, someone’s running a story on it.

Well-trodden jokes are a firm favourite of many too. For me and others of Scots heritage, stories of Nessie’s origin or sightings are getting a little boring. But who can forget the Thomas Cook story around a decade ago, when the travel firm was ‘found’ to be offering its German customers the option to pre-book sun loungers for Mediterranean package holidays. Blanket coverage and tabloids splashing on ‘towels at dawn’.

And, last but not least, and one of my firm favourites. It recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, the cat bin lady furore. When an unsuspecting woman from Coventry was filmed dropping a neighbour’s cat into a wheelie bin, she quickly became a viral sensation. The video sparked a series of stories of public outrage and even demands that she be sacked from her job at a major retail bank. As meme milestones go, cat bin lady was an early favourite.

Silly season 2020

So, the question remains: what will silly season look like this year? Well, there are two schools of thought, each with their own merit.

The first is that we won’t see that many silly season stories this year. With coronavirus hitting advertising budgets hard, and media outlets having made the hard choices to furlough staff or make redundancies, the resources that could once be dedicated to these weird and wonderful stories simply aren’t there anymore.

With news reporting teams spread thinly, attention is far more likely to be directed at the more bread and butter output, which people stump up hard-earned cash for, and not the offbeat, jokey stories we so enjoy at this time of year.

On the other hand, there is a school of thought that says this year will be a bumper year for barmy ‘news’.

Not only are we in desperate need of a bit of laughter and cheering up after a pretty dismal start to the year, but these stories are also great for social engagement and driving traffic to publications’ websites – enabling them to better compete for the little ad spend that is out there in the market.

While Coronavirus has obviously given us some horrendous headlines, it has also given us some of the strangest stories in recent memory – be they the Dutch sex bubbles for singles to the to the CDC in British Columbia recommending the use of gloryholes!

Which type of silly season we’ll see this year only time will tell. Personally, I’m hoping for one for the ages.

If the early indications are anything to go by, we’re in for a treat. Less than 48 hours in to the parliamentary summer recess we were treated to a flurry of stories about the height of our most prominent politicians.

Chancellors of this stature are in short supply

Silly season communications

There is, however, a fine balance to be struck. While light-hearted, at the end of the day reputations are at stake and with such a serious story still evolving every day, a communications blunder – even during silly season – could land you in hot water very quickly.

There are certainly benefits to be had with pitching silly season stories. You can win valuable links, build affinity with your audience, drive new prospects to your site, and convert customers. However, you need to minimise risks and repercussions.

Communications need to reflect your organisation’s brand and tone of voice and you need to be able to stand behind and defend that activity, even if it lands in a slightly different way to how you had envisioned it – a very real possibility with these woollier kinds of story.

Experienced communicators can help define the boundaries here. PR advisors armed with knowledge of your brand, its values, and your target audience can lean on their expertise to craft a campaign that not only satisfies the media (and public) need for a rib-achingly funny story that sells papers, but furthers your commercial interests too.

If you’re thinking about silly season and what a campaign could look like, whether you’re a consumer-facing business or deal in deep business-to-business technology, expert media advisors and content marketers can help you hit the proverbial nail on the head.

We all need a break now and then and welcome respite from the whiplash of the current news agenda would go down about as well as the reopening of pubs across the country. So, let’s raise a glass to the silly season, and keep an eye out for the strangest stories this summer may bring!

A version of this post first appeared on the Babel PR blog here.

Matt Silver

CIPR Accredited PR Practitioner who helps technology companies tell their stories at Babel PR – a London-based integrated communications agency for brands in the digital economy. A PRCA member with over seven years of experience in strategic communications, Matt relishes the opportunity to get under the skin of complex issues, and develop integrated communications solutions that deliver commercial results for clients. Working with some of the biggest names in technology, Matt’s been tasked with everything from launching new mobile devices, to putting supercomputers on the international space station. A frequently frustrated follower of both politics and Scottish rugby, beyond the world of work Matt takes a keen interest in fine food and drink, as well as getting out and about in the countryside.