Monday, 18 March 2013

Promoting your community event in Halesworth (or anywhere else)

From my varied perspectives as a community development officer, volunteer and journalist I offer here the benefit of my experience in trying to ensure news of community events reaches an audience.

Except perhaps secret societies, adequate publicity is essential to almost every community project. Whatever event you are promoting probably takes a lot of other people's time and its success depends on how well the message reaches the potential participants. It’s crucial you get your marketing right but very simple errors can scupper your ambitions.

So I have set out what I know about the media landscape in Halesworth, Suffolk. If perhaps you know more or different, I welcome you to share your knowledge and so improve the chances that everybody in the community is engaged with the efforts made on their behalf.

The first step is to consider what the message about your event is and who is it for. It sounds obvious people would know this but then I could shame a lot of people with a rogues gallery of poor advertising. Just trust me it happens that people often forget the basics.

How to start

To begin with the most important person to get onside promoting your event are journalists in the mainstream media, they are the gatekeepers to your largest audience. In these days of social media and citizen bloggers they have less power than they used to but they can considerably influence the numbers that read or hear about your event.

To attract this particular readers’ interest (actually any reader) you should think of the news of your event as a story. It has a beginning, middle and end. It also needs what journalists call a ‘peg’ to hang it on, that is shorthand for a topic of current interest. If you don’t have an idea what ‘pegs’ your local media are interested in, then it’s worth researching by reading their publications. News has constant shifts in focus and fashion. There are seasonal activities and holidays and natural events driving the news and offering unlimited pegs for stories.

There is another reason for thinking in terms of 'story' and 'pegs' which is that you will want this news to travel by word of mouth. What's an interesting point of the story? What is its relevance to people's concerns? Most people enjoy being able to say "have you heard?.."

Different stories need different strategies. For a benefit concert, the draw is more probably the quality and type of music rather than the cause it is for, though both messages need to be conveyed. It's hard to find a news angle on a jumble sale, so maybe the sale format could have an innovation? If you are publicizing an appeal for donations or jumble even, then the value of the outcomes would need prominence. This poster above was tweeted to me and looking around at how the event was publicized with social media, it is a good example of what I will suggest here though I can nit-pick on a couple of tiny points which I hope you will be able to as well.

I suggest you package the information about your event into two formats to reach an audience; a press release and a poster. To make either you will have to start with assembling all the basic contents of the story. The content is much the same in either format; the headline information of the press release should be on the poster and the press release should expand the headline information in the poster.

The press release has a particular structure I will go into later. It needn't be long, the more concise the better. The press release will go to media outlets that will usually ‘editorialise’ your story though some may just print it in full. They will only need the basic facts to put your event into their listings calendar but they really need some background information to make a story out of it. Whatever goes into your ‘press release’ is also the content of other announcements you might make, such as to associates, so start thinking about the content of the press release first.


Ideally a poster should tell the ‘story’ of your event quite directly and simply at a glance. While cryptic ‘teasers’ might be a way Hollywood markets blockbuster movies, you need people to know as much as possible about your event midst a great deal of visual background noise. 

Hand drawn poster which is only 180 KB as an attachment.

The traditional way remains the best way and that is a poster with strong iconic image with a minimum of text. Then again you can break the rules and make the quantity and style of the text itself interesting. You should aim to catch the eye of a passer-by and entice them to stop and read it. If you have a strong image, people will read the poster so text can be smaller to give the image room but if you should only put up such posters up where people can read them.  A great poster with small type won’t work as a placard on roadside verges for instance. The poster’s style and choice of fonts should reflect the event and can I just say please avoid any use of Comic Sans.
  • Use all the space at your disposal, but do not cram in the content - white space is an important part of the layout, and good use of it can make a poster elegant and arresting.
  • Use colour sparingly - limited use of a few colours is more striking than a 'rainbow' approach. Think about why you are using colour; it is especially useful for emphasis and differentiation.
    • Avoid colour combinations that clash (e.g. red on blue) or cause problems for people with colour-blindness (e.g. red and green in proximity).
  • Use white or muted colour background (e.g. pastel shades)
  • The flow of information should be clear from the layout; if you have to use arrows to indicate the flow, the content could probably be arranged better.
  • The title text should be readable from 6 metres away.
  • The body text should be readable from 2 metres away.
  • Choose a clear font with large inner space (i.e. the space inside the loops of letters such as 'o', 'd', 'p'). Good examples are Arial, Verdana, Georgia or Helvetica.
  • Keep the word count as low as possible.
I had a particular success with posters for a lecture given on water towers that were produced to look like a Victorian musical hall poster. That poster was almost too successful as people took several posters down as souvenirs before the event happened.

This poster broke the rules to stand out effectively

To save costs your poster could be produced in a format that works both as a wall poster and a quarter or eighth page advertisement.  Your poster should conform to the A6 – A0 aspect ratio and be portrait in orientation. In asking around Halesworth I found many shops and places are willing to put up posters but they viewed posters larger than A4 size such as A3 in landscape format as an abuse of hospitality, as that takes up 2 x A4 spaces. You can also print your poster as a card at A6 (4 on a sheet of A4) which are good as handouts and fit in display racks. You can make A3 and larger posters but this usually requires access to specialist printers and naturally is more expensive. We have in Halesworth a very capable print shop, it's worth asking them what they can do for you.

There's a simple explanation of paper sizes here.

A busy poster also used as a flyer but an email attachment was a 2MB JPEG

You can produce your poster in a variety of widely available software (or make it by hand) but it will eventually need a digital version. You can scan hand-drawn graphics but that digital file should be as widely compatible as possible, which these days is the Graphics Interchange Format where the data file ends in .gif  

The GIF is limited to 256 colours but can make a large crisp image without being a large data file if you have designed your poster with that in mind (such as limiting your colour palette). With a GIF you can send out an image that will print well on A4 to make a colour poster but won’t clog people’s computers (and phones) with 2MB – 10MB files as the equivalent JPEG.

I see a lot of posters sent to me by email as MS Word files. People presume it is universal but its not, but if you have used the most up to date version of MS Word, then you might find people can’t open your document unless it’s saved to be compatible with older versions; your files should end .doc instead of .docx

Do not expect people to open files in MS Publisher or obscure formats. Adobe's PDF is fairly safe, in fact ideal for a multipage document but actually I don't recommend any of these formats. I advocate putting posters into GIF or JPEG as a PDF or other formats will need conversion into a GIF or JPEG to be viewed on a website or viewed ‘in-line’ with an email reader. GIFs can be instantly ‘tweeted’ on social media and viewed instantly whereas a PDF has to be hosted, downloaded and opened before it is viewed. As we’re talking about posters which are one-page documents, the GIF format is better. Your GIF poster should accompany the press release you email out but should not replace it.

If you have a poster as a MS Word file you will find you can save it as a GIF or JPG but you can save it as a PDF. You can then use an online tool like to convert it to a JPEG for online use.

poster made with MS PowerPoint art tools in A3 size then saved as GIF

You should aim to make your poster as clear and simple as possible. Even if you are expecting to print very large cards for both shop windows and roadside placards; less is always more. Use colour if you can but sparingly, keep it to one or two besides black or white. If you are organising an event with lots of other events, such as a fete, then think of your poster in two halves, the top half with the one-line 'Grand Village Fete’ and below almost as a separate half poster you can list the times of the vegetable judging and so on.

Poster Making

In creating a poster you may find MS Word can be very fiddly in setting text and pictures and MS Publisher should have been strangled at birth, so I’ll tell you a little secret; make your poster as a MS PowerPoint  presentation, but only with one slide. You can set the slide to be the paper you expect you use; A3 portrait is ideal then position your art and text as you wish and save the document as a GIF. You can line up your text and image boxes with single pixel accuracy by selecting them and then moving with the Ctrl + arrow key. You might have found that you can’t save a MS Word document as a JPEG or GIF, but from MS PowerPoint you can save the 'slide' into these and other formats.

Fly Posting

There are 79 ground floor shop premises in Halesworth which could host a poster in the window but I have found only around 20 of them will do that. It is not reasonable to expect that every one of them would. The Post Office in the Thoroughfare has a national policy not to put posters up but it will allow a few leaflets (leave those mini-posters here). Nor do most of the financial institutions. There is a community notice board inside Barclays Bank with space for only 4 A4 portrait posters. Always ask permission before putting up a poster on a notice board as nobody’s walls  are public property and several  sites have policies about what services or events can be advertised on their premises. There are also a couple of sites around the town where ‘fly-posting’ is tolerated but please don’t create new ones. The wooden fence by the entrance to the town car park and the fence by the RADAR toilet have for some time been unofficial community notice boards. Anywhere else is not encouraged. 

A community event in Halesworth is reliably likely to get posters into these places.

  • Library – see the librarian. There is a charge for posters viewable outside.
  • Doctor’s Surgery – see the practise manager (some restrictions on content)
  • Town Council Notice Board (middle of Thoroughfare) – see town clerk
  • Halesworth Book Shop – see Peter, some space for A4 posters in the doorway
  • Halesworth Area Community Transport – small postcards or leaflets can be given to passengers of the 511 bus.
  • Halesworth Fish & Chip Shop  & Seashell Fish & Chips
  • Schools - see receptionist
You should walk the Market Place and Thoroughfare with your posters and some Blu-Tack and drawing pins. When you ask a shop if they would put a poster up, it’s worth explaining a bit about the event and why it’s important to the town. The word-of-mouth of the shop staff speaking to their customers is invaluable. All of Halesworth's coffee shops are helpful about posters but some don't have much space because of their layout. Your prime spot is the back of the till. If your event has tickets, some shops will sell them.

It's also an oft-forgotten courtesy to go round at take down your posters after an event. This does a few other things; it allows you to thank the host and share the news of your event's success and showing such courtesy will probably foster future permission and more prominent placement.

Press releases

Your press release and posters must include the basic information of the Five Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why. You would think it is obvious that every story should have that but I often see notices missing something crucial. 

The typical news story usually follows the inverted pyramid structure.  It opens with a single headline and then goes into deeper details. Your press release should follow a similar structure.

File:Inverted pyramid 2.svg

If your press release is emailed to regional or national media, it will arrive with thousands of others. The journalist looking for a story to fill their pages, radio show or whatever else will want to quickly ascertain what your story is about and whether it meets their needs so make sure you put the salient points early in the first paragraph, then expand on them in later paragraphs.

In this instance I am talking more about getting your event listed rather than running a PR campaign and ‘pitching’ a news story and snaring a reporter to cover your event which is complex craft of its own. But make sure your press release has:

  • Who - which organisation is responsible for the event.  Also essential you have a contact for more information on your press release. I would suggest having just one contact person. Both an email and a phone is ideal and don’t presume people know your area code, include the whole telephone number.
  • What - describe the event in explicit terms. If you say “Grand Bazaar” you conjure up some expectations, include some descriptions of what’s on offer.
  • When - the date and time of event; give the day as well as the date and don’t forget the year. You’ll be surprised how long your information might linger out there as a poster or on a website. You never can tell when people will find your information, so let people whether it’s current by including the year on your poster. As well as the start time, the end time is useful to know. So the basic minimum on a poster is : Monday, 18th March 2013, 10AM to 1 PM.
  • Where - the location of the event; it’s a good idea to include the nearest postcode on the poster and the release. This is important to people using public transport.
  • Why - what is the event in aid of? What outcome do you want from the event? This can be the most important thing that brings the audience to you. A footnote to say "in aid of village hall funds..." is not a great pull. "In aid of a new sports facility..." might have more pull to the media and audience if you can say a bit more about who and why.
Halesworth Library charge £5 PCM for 'street'  facing A4 posters. Inside are free.
For a simple local event you won’t need to make your press release a masterpiece of prose, a simple announcement as if it was a letter to another person will do fine. An annual flower show could probably be listed for under 50 words but then that flower club may need to find new members and so you now have a great chance to explain the benefits of joining the flower club. In that case you will need to hone your story-telling skills.

There is also a detailed handy guide to this craft. 

Choice of media channels

There are any number of routes a message can take to get to its intended audience, so called 'channels'. You can distribute your information by these basic routes:

  • Personal networks; such as ‘Round-Robin’ emails to all your contacts to forward onto their contacts
  • Social Media; twitter, Facebook and the like
  • Listing in news and events websites and forums
  • Editorial and advertising in newspapers and parish newsletters
  • Posters and leaflets
  • Word of mouth
  • Radio and television: news or on-air mentions
In this multimedia world, many of these media outlets have a presence in other media; for example the newspapers are available on the web and radio stations have websites with local event listings and now newspapers have online TV stations. Many newspapers have forums and that allows a two-way feedback from consumers of the news. This is very useful as details of community events are rarely set in stone and details can be updated as they become confirmed.

My advice is that you need to use all of these channels to ensure your message reaches its audience but remember not all formats are appropriate to every channel. You should send your press release and images to the mainstream media and bloggers but its generally discourteous to clog ordinary people's emails with large attachments so just send them your poster with brief request to circulate it encapsulating the what and why etcetera. 

News and events websites

I was saved a great deal of time in writing this when I found local blogger Des Fisher of Near The Coast has put advice on his website about supplying him with listings information. I wholly concur with his advice:

  1. Tell us - If we don't know about your boot sale, underwater golf team or coffee morning we can't tell the world about you.
  2. Tell Us By Email  - We're not going to use ourselves up keeping track of bits of paper, telephone calls or people stopping us in Solar.  Email us and put your press release in the body of the email NOT in an attachment.
  3. Tell Us What, When, Where, How Much and Who  -  Is it a dance, a boot sale, a bank robbery?  When is it happening?  And not just the date, but the start time and if you really want to go for it the probable end time.  Where is it and sufficient info that a punter can find it.  How much is it?  Free is always very popular but we have to be told.  Finally tell us who to contact for more info and a phone number really helps.
  4. Pictures, Pictures, Pictures - Supplying pictures will instantly make your item stand out.  If you don't have a digital camera you will know someone who does and remember the second law of photography "you can't get too close".  If you don't know how to attach a picture to an email then learn.
  5. Tell Us Before It Happens - Telling us anytime is better than not telling us but telling us a couple of days before hand, unless it's a surprise concert by the two remaining Beatles at the British Legion, won't get you the best result.
  6. Use The Near The Coast Bulletin Board - Keep interest in your event alive; thank sponsors, explain ticket prices, in fact do more to help yourself.  Give us (your media hosts) something to link to from the home page.
  7. Tell Us After It's Happened  - Raise the profile of your organisation and generally increase interest by telling afterwards how much you raised for retired trees, how many fallen women you saved or how large the marrow was.  Reporting a disaster, as well as a triumph, creates a human interest story.
I shall expand on some of Des’ points:

Word of Mouth

1. Publicity is essential. If you think you've done enough publicity you need to do more.  You can’t just rely on the web, nor is a mention in the local free-sheet enough. You will need posters or flyers, you will need word-of-mouth and you will need to find people and outlets that will actively pass on your message for you. I read somewhere it takes SEVEN impressions for the audience to act on your message. Posters and web listings are quite passive but the best publicity is the active forms of media and people mentioning your event in their conversations is the most effective publicity of all. 

It was said by a local politician once, and I know it to be true, that you can line the Halesworth Thoroughfare with posters, run adverts in the Community News and there will still be people who will grumble they didn't hear about your event. “Nothing short of adverts in the midst of Coronation Street or X-Factor can reach them” it was said of this cohort.

There is still a huge ‘digital divide’ in society. Certain groups are cut-off from using the Internet and social media and they don’t own mobile phones and rely on traditional media. They still buy the papers or read the free-sheets. Other groups, such as the young, hardly engage with traditional local media these days. Whilst a local free-sheet newspaper may be delivered to their home, they may not read it. Many people give our local free-sheets a scan when it drops each month through the mail box but if the details of your event are buried deep in the text, they may not notice or register it. Readers and editors of the local free-sheets  or parish newsletters appreciate concise announcements of events in the first paragraph with detail in the second and third which can be omitted if necessary.

Word of mouth advertising that reaches people that the web, print and television can’t reach is actually easy to access and quite cheap. National campaigns like the BBC Digital Switchover recognised this and actively recruited the kinds of people that meet and talk to people in their community such as taxi drivers, community transport drivers, volunteer centre and day centre staff, community nurses, PCSOs, food servers, shop assistants, hairdressers, school teachers, health visitors and so on. If you can mobilise everyone involved in your event to take a flyer and hand it personally to such people and answer their questions, (rather than just send them an email) then you are likely to find these ‘word of mouth’ outlets are very effective.

You should also contact local community groups and organisations and ask if they can inform their members about your event. The W.I. in this respect is truly a force to be reckoned with. If you can, it's always best to send a representative to speak for a minute about the event and answer any questions. Your request should also include an offer to reciprocate for their events.

2. Nearly all of the media ‘outlets’ I have listed at the end have an email contact. If you do send information in a ‘Round-Robin’ email to all your contacts asking them to forward it to theirs and so on, and you have a poster, you might think to attach it to your email. But if you do this and you want to send attachments, you would be better off to have those documents hosted somewhere and then include a link to them.

Asking people to circulate attachments to all their contacts is an imposition. It’s not the single email that is the problem but the cumulative effect of many of them.  As a CDO I might get 50 emails per week with attachments of 1 – 2 MB each from organisations telling me about their events. If I and everyone in my organisation forward those emails, we will create thousands of duplicates of those attachments. Those attachments slow down our network and also fill up our servers.

Hosting a poster or documents elsewhere and just having links to them in your email also enables media "conversion". I would more readily read your email and then ‘tweet’ a link to the content or post it on a social media site such as Facebook or Streetlife if there was a link to a website and any documents. I can’t do this if there is only the email with its attachments as my email is not a 'host'. Info about hosting follows.

3. The Five W’s I have already covered.

A key moment in the play 'Keepers' One photo that stimulates interest

4. Des is right about pictures. Publishers love visual content but don’t send out lots of pictures to the media and don't send them to your friends, use the poster instead. Just pick one picture if you have it that says what your event is about. For example, a cake sale in The Thoroughfare can include a photo of a close-up on a cake you've made. I've seen a study of what people look at on a newspaper and web page; I think a photo is worth ten thousand more impressions.

If you want copyright-free images for use in your posters, these are sites you can search: 
  • MorgueFile - probably the best single source of free photos.
  • Wikimedia Commons - archive of free multimedia content submitted by Wikipedia users.
  • JISC Media Hub - Free images from the Getty collection.
  • Google Images using the 'usage rights' filter.
  • Flickr Creative Commons - an index of all Flickr images for which the owner has specified a Creative Commons licence (which usually means you can use it)
  • A collection of free photographs for private non-commercial use.
  • Image*After - large, free photo collection, with images free for any use.
  • The Creative Commons search allows you to search Google, Yahoo, Flickr and other sites for material that is licensed under the Creative Commons - which usually means you can use it without charge in a non-commercial context.
5. Respect deadlines, especially if you are submitting information and expecting free publicity. Do take the trouble to find out each particular publication’s deadlines and submit well in advance. With regards to publications around Halesworth, it’s safe to say they generally have more potential content than they have space for so you should try to keep your material short and to the point and the only way to guarantee inclusion is to purchase advertising. There is obviously a cost to them of producing the free publication and they naturally will give prominence to their advertisers. Taking out a small ad can get you a lot more editorial coverage as well. 

6. Keep the conversation going. Wherever your story has an online presence, have a conversation with readers there. Check for comments and make sure you follow up and respond to them.  Although Facebook is enormously popular, many people don’t like to use it and won’t be pleased that Facebook will make them join to access a page you’ve set up there. The portal owned by Archant is focused on listing community events around a particular locality so I prefer it.

7. Likewise, follow up the ‘buzz’ you've made about your event with outcomes, send out thanks, photographs and give a trailer to when you will hold the next event.

Making the push

Once your press release is written and your poster is made, you can sit down and push the story out to the media.

enable participation

Your first step is to find a host for a kind of simple web page for your event on which can host your poster and the full text of your announcement (based on your press release). Ideally your organisation has a website and you can create a page for your event with the details and the poster and you can include the link to this page in your emails.

If you don't have a website, you can quickly set one up as a single page with a blogging platform such as Blogger or Wordpress but if that's too daunting, it can also be done easily on other social media such as Facebook or I have also found it quite workable to list an event on Blythweb’s calendar, then link to that page or do the same with Near The Coast. There was a useful service called Posterous which enabled you to host PDF and word documents on the web for free but it has closed. By now there may well be replacement.

When your event is listed somewhere you can then link that page in the message you send to all of your email contacts, including the request that they send it on to their contacts. This they will do more readily if they don’t have to forward attachments. Don’t send your personal contacts your press release, unless they’re journalists, but use the content of the release to craft a short message and point them to the listings page if they need more information. It's important your message is interesting, short and sweet and the links work so test them. In blind-sending by emails, the interest threshold is low. Your message may end up in 'SPAM' filters but it can be ignored as 'bacon' too it's best to just send to people you know and ask them to send to people they know.

Pointing to a listings page for details and links in your emails makes listings publishers very happy as you will be driving visitor traffic to their site.

To the media you can send attachments but the content of your press release must be in the message body. Do not expect journalists to open attachments to find out what your message is about. Your subject line should say it’s a press release but also include the topic so it can be routed to the right person, or ‘for attention of the event listings editor’ as appropriate.

You may need to pitch your message slightly differently for mainstream radio and TV. From local radio the best result you can expect is a quick phone call from a presenter to talk about the event before it happens. Have someone prepared to do this if you haven’t got the nerve yourself. If you can be troubled to go into the studio, it gives a much better impression on the listener and also helps you build a rapport with the staff at the station for your next event.

simple press release, big result

With the press and TV news you should be explicit about what access you can offer them prior to the event and on the day of the event. Line up a couple of photogenic and garrulous people to talk to the press and pose for photographs. If you offer something photogenic, food is always good, then you might attract coverage but I would avoid the 'big cheque' handover and the balloon release. They may wish to report your event if you have piqued their interest but their schedule might require they have to do a photo set-up before the actual event. If you are planning a regular series of events, you can invite them to come to one event knowing their report will run after your event but that could be ideal for trailing the next event.

challenging yourself and others is a good story

Don’t forget specialist media if your event has a niche audience. The number of websites and magazines for listing music events would overwhelm this brief guide but East Anglia’s Grapevine would be the first place to list gigs.


Sometimes events issue invitations and require people to rsvp and the round-robin will often include an attachment with a form to complete and return by email, either a MS Word file or a Adobe Acrobat file which can be filled in. Again I suggest you consider hosting those forms somewhere else rather than an attachment or even setting up a Survey Monkey questionnaire instead to capture your invitation responses.

A summary of the steps I have described is outlined in this chart.

Where to send info

Halesworth Town Council now has a calendar of events. Please send listings to

These are some media contacts I've used in the past. This list seems to cut & paste into Excel alright if you want to add them to your contacts.

Halesworth Community News
Wenhaston Warbler
Wenhaston PC
Town Herald
Joe Cassells
Southwold Organ
Dominic Knight
Southwold Gazette
Southwold Press
Ipswich Star
Holton Post
Holton Post
Eastern Daily Press
Beccles & Bungay Journal
The Beach - Radio
Tindle Radio
BBC Radio Suffolk
Look East
Anglia News
One  Suffolk
SCC, WDC etc.
Near The Coast
Des Fisher
Iceni Post

Discover Suffolk
Discover Suffolk
Best of Southwold
Tracy Hazell
Where Can We Go
Wherecanwego Ltd
Visit Waveney Valley
Waveney DC
Visit Suffolk
East of England CIC
Sunrise Coast
Waveney DC
Suffolk Tourist Guide
Sarah Quinlan
Halesworth Website

The glossy Places & Faces magazine lists events and features event-driven stories about local places and people.

Norfolk and North Suffolk edition:

Rest of Suffolk:

The Media Trust and the Press Association offer a pro-bono distribution service. There is an online form to complete at and every day the 20 or so best stories submitted are written up by Press Association journalists and sent to thousands of media outlets.


Community Action Suffolk produced a comprehensive media tool kit for voluntary and community groups at

Finally, you're welcome to share this page. If any of this has been useful to you, do let me know, likewise please help me fix any errors. Hat Tips to @pixlink appreciated.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Breaking the cycle of harm

I saw a balloon release story in yet another regional newspaper today.

A balloon release story is an evergreen staple of the national and regional media. If there are hundreds reported in online editions every year for good causes, in all likelihood there are thousands of them occurring in the UK. They are increasingly popular at weddings and charity fundraising events as well as memorials.

I must point you to photographs of my beaches in Suffolk as to why I object to any balloon release.

As a journalist myself, I have begun to ask journalists to report balloon releases accurately for what they are: simple littering. Balloon release reports rarely mention their impact on the environment. Any mention of impact is usually a reassurance they are harmless, often quoting a balloon vendor or their proxy the event organiser. In ideal conditions a single natural latex balloon will eventually decay but 'ideal' is not the same as 'always' and releases are rarely limited to a single balloon without tags, plastic ties or strings. It's another tragedy of the commons where each person justifies it by "just one won't hurt".

Balloon releases are mainly done for publicity. They are a photogenic story but, in general, the print and television news media is totally negligent in reporting the harm that they cause or even questioning their impact.

Balloon litter found on Dunwich Beach

Mainstream media has many responsibilities; the most paramount is to be fair, balanced and report the truth. It should not give balloon release organisers encouragement by advance or post-event publicity without at least reporting the harm they cause. This cycle of harm must be broken.

Every year there are thousands and thousands of balloon releases world-wide that were encouraged by every previous release and the photographs published in the media show the vast majority do not adhere to the balloon industry guidelines to only use latex balloons without any strings or tags. The very premise of the popular fundraising method of balloon races requires a tag on every balloon though. Every so-called "responsible" balloon release will spawn hundreds of much more harmful imitators. The general public cannot be trusted to observe release guidelines. The balloon industry cannot be relied on to impose them. In every society its moral standards sink to the limit of enforcement. What would our roads be like if our speed limits were merely guidelines?

Mylar balloon litter found in Suffolk

Sometimes balloon releases are done as a memorial for a dead person, sometimes in tragic cases of children dying. A private expression of grief in this way is ill advised but is generally respected but memorial organisers often seek publicity for their memorials which only leads to more such releases. 

People seek publicity for various reasons. Good causes usually want to raise awareness of their particular cause with a  wider public. Balloon releases are cheap to to organise and seem to walk into content-hungry regional media without question. To approach people who plan and promote memorial releases after their announcement is very difficult. In my experience it's quite safe to generalise that they perceive even the most polite request as being insensitive to their grief. Should harmful expressions of grieving be permitted regardless? Is this suttee of wildlife and livestock and trashing of places of natural beauty acceptable? 
density per km of balloon litter on Beachwatch surveys since 1996

Otherwise celebrities like Jeff Brazier shall continue to encourage his 35,000 twitter followers and readers on the Huffington Post blog to join him in releasing thousands of balloons in memory of Jade Goody planned for March 17th 2013. This is not private grieving and it demands a response that it is irresponsible. His particular (and not unusual) response is to block people who contact him on twitter politely asking him to reconsider.

Balloon releases need pre-emptive information to discourage them. That won't come from the balloon sellers. It won't come from local government who don't require any licenses to release balloons. It could come from the media who can either refuse to run the story or it could respond with "thank you for your submission but we don't promote littering and will report it as such when it happens".

anti litter campaigns are undermined by balloon releases

The defence of releases that the balloons are biodegradable is a myth, put out by the balloon industry obviously to protect their interests. The great number of "turn-up" releases usually include Mylar balloons which are indestructible. But all this is beside the point. Balloon releases are simply littering. If people can be issued with Fixed Penalty Notices for dropping biodegradable fast food or similar litter, how is it permissible to allow and promote littering by balloon releases? Why does the unacceptable disposing of something by dropping on the ground become acceptable by filling it with lighter-than-air gas and releasing it to fall to the ground later?

The legality of balloon releases is subject to debate. The law seems pretty clear that to "otherwise deposit" material is littering but enforcement is very selective. The Metropolitan Police chose not to determine that Lord Coe was littering when he released thousands of balloons to open the Olympic Stadium in May 2012, but whether something is legal, or quasi legal, it doesn't follow it is also acceptable. It used to be legal for a man to beat his wife or to send children into coal mines. Society seems to have a collective blindness to the implications of releasing TONNES of latex and plastic into the air every year in the UK to come down on water and land to leave an unsightly and dangerous mess.

Another menace; the litter from a Chinese lantern
A good number of organisations can provide scientific evidence of the harm of balloons being released, which is far from limited to latex balloons. The RSPCA, National Farmers Union and anti-litter organisations have published guidance asking people not to release balloons. But whatever the scientific argument is, it's just a red herring. The simple fact remains, to let a balloon go deliberately is just littering. No good cause can justify that harm.

If you want more links and information, I suggest you follow the hashtag #balloonrelease on twitter. has begun tracking the number of balloon releases reported in the media and on social media.

So if you are a journalist, I urge you to reconsider how you report balloon releases and the part you play in encouraging them. Otherwise you are complicit in this harm.