Last night we held our third thefuturestory event. Our topic this time was a little more PR focused, since we are a rounded communications agency with experience in PR and internal communications, and it is something many of us are always thinking about in business: making your story heard and then using it to create a great campaign.

Our speaker was Ed Watson, the Director of PR at Debenhams, a multinational department store in the UK, Ireland and Denmark. Debenhams have had a big week, news wise. The PR team has launched the Christmas advert, size 16 mannequins and announced that boys’ and girls’ toys would no longer be separated, so we were especially excited that Ed found the time to share his stories with us in an intimate theatre, at RADA Studios in London.

Ed started by telling us that five years ago Debenhams press office was considered, amongst other  things, lazy. But an holistic approach to PR has now ensured that its former reputation has been turned on its head. The PR team at Debenhams reflects a news-desk structure (or an agency, even). Each person looks after a section of the store, from the clothes to cosmetics, and they attend each weekly meeting so that they are really embedded in the company.

Watercooler PR is what the team is aiming for; Ed wants people to talk about Debenhams everywhere and anywhere and he explained how they try to make this happen by following the zeitgeist. Whilst it's invaluable scanning newspapers, it's much more than that. A little gossip can look like nothing to the untrained eye - but the team talks about everything, personally and in business, ensuring that they are always at the forefront of news and social media, and that their ‘geists are zeited’ (or was it zeits are geisted?! I hope it's easier than it sounds!) everyday.

Three examples of great stories that have resulted in successful Debenhams campaigns:

1) Story: knives are being used less than forks.

Action: Debenhams PR team launches a 'civilised dining' campaign and enlists the help of the etiquette experts of Debrettes. They link this to social media by offering advice from an online butler on twitter/Facebook.

Result: created a debate about how modern society is eating, resulting in massive PR coverage.  Sales of knives and forks are now at parity at Debenhams.

2) Story: Ascot Race Course announces that fascinators are now banned in the Royal Enclosure. (Debenhams sell more fascinators in the UK than any other retailer).

Action: Debenhams PR team launches a protest campaign against the ban. They take models to Ascot who march with their fascinators and they give out 100 fascinators, encouraging people to take photos and share online with the hashtag #savethefascinator.

Results: fascinator sales went up, massive PR coverage, but unfortunately fascinators are still banned in the Royal Enclosure (chortle throughout the theatre...).

3) Story: Debenhams launches first Christmas advert in five years, winter 2012. This is an annual battle with other retailers in terms of media coverage and once bonfire night and Halloween are out of the way, Ed described that 6th November is the start of Christmas as far as retailers are concerned! Advert resulted in the main feature, the red coat, being sold more than any other coat at Debenahms, ever. But how do you keep the momentum going?

Action: use social media. Followers were asked to nominate either themselves or someone they knew that deserved the #lastredcoat.

Result: the hashtag #lastredcoat trended on twitter.

Ed also gave us examples of save the flannel and teapot campaigns and talked about inclusivity, Debenhams' campaign to shake up our preconceived ideas of body image in the UK. Debenhams have created advertising through photo shoots that reflect 'real society' with a range of models from petite to plus-size, a paralympic model to an 80-year-old, without retouching. From little stories to big, meaningful ones - Ed is an inspiration and can find a story in everything.

The key tips I took away from Ed?

- Be brave and offer yourself up for comparison with the competition - whether it's positive or negative, it's creating noise and debate! - Always try and have an advocate, whether it's Debrettes supporting bringing back the knife or Tetley's mourning the demise of the teapot, it gives your campaign longevity, momentum, authenticity and support. - News is set up to reflect the audience it serves - always be observational. Looking outwardly helps us look inwardly (in terms of brand).