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How Bernie Hollywood OBE conquered Atlantic storms in the name of children’s mental health

On 1 April this year Bernie Hollywood OBE set foot on dry land for the first time in over 15 weeks, after an epic solo row across the Atlantic, the culmination of his Boat of Hope campaign. It was a feat he had committed to as a means to raise funds for Samaritans and LOVE Rowing, two charities supporting children’s mental health, and as he himself relates, it was a challenge that was almost too much.

At every stage, the Farrer Kane & Co team were on board: from helping to shape the initial messaging, through to giving the campaign an effective voice in the media and helping out with the multitude of amazing fund-raising events Bernie and his team conceived.

Bernie was driven from the very start by a personal desire to give children hope, in the wake of devasting COVID lockdowns. His passion brought many different creative partners together and meant everyone involved forged close bonds. Farrer Kane & Co Senior Account Manager Ines Alves was one of the agency team closest to the action, speaking to Bernie regularly throughout his row.

We asked Bernie and Ines what it’s like to be on the inside of such an intense challenge, and one that was the result of so many people’s hard work over the two years leading up to the row. Ines began by asking Bernie how he feels about what he has managed to achieve, now the row is complete.

Ines. How do you reflect on what you’ve been able to achieve around children’s mental health and the pandemic – do you feel anything has changed now the campaign is complete?

Bernie. This is a great question. Farrer Kane’s help and support put the communications structure in place and helped us connect with the media. That meant we could reach people with our message – which was a really simple one: to open up a conversation with early years and older children around mental health.  

We’ve been hugely successful in engaging with thousands of children around the UK. Our incredible relationship with ParentPay group, our premium partner, facilitated the engagement with thousands of school children throughout the UK, and in turn you helped us reach lots of local media.

We had a number of different activation moments within the campaign: a pivotal one being the 30 day Boat Pull at MoD Lyneham – we had BBC Radio Wiltshire, BBC Radio Somerset and lots more regional press interested, and following the Boat Pull we actually had a lot of engagement from those in and involved with the Armed Forces.

Connections with the media are so vital to get the message out – and you can’t do it on your own – you really need a PR company who are experts in the field to go out there any make the magic happen. You can get so busy doing the basics in the campaign, that the media part can end up an afterthought. Having you on board as our incredible partner really took that concern away. You had an in-depth understanding of what we wanted to achieve and you articulated that brilliantly to the media and the results have been astounding.

Ines. I’m glad to hear you felt that way. And you weren’t just doing the basics!  Every single person in the campaign team was doing such incredible things. What we saw was that it was a real collaborative effort, and the campaign struck such a chord with so many creative people. Why is that? And how did you go about bringing together such a great collection of people?

Bernie. When you’re a child and someone tells you a story – you remember it.

It’s the same in business or in any campaign. When you can tell a good story, people want to come on board.

We researched what we wanted before we went live with the campaign. We investigated whether the creative arts would open up a conversation with children about mental health.

Before we launched we tested our idea with sample schools, asking: if we approach this conversation with animation or pictures would it be appropriate – and the feedback was great.

I’m really fortunate to know a huge number of creatives – children’s authors, illustrators, artists and I just reached out to them. I sent an email and told the story, asking – would you like to make a difference by using your creative arts to open a conversation with young people about their mental health? And they all said yes.

When we brought the creatives together they came up with some amazing ideas. One was a character, a 7 year old boy called Bernie, who befriended a little boat. We knew he would appeal to young children – and we were right. We built on the concept with the incredible author Natalie Reeves Billing and the book, Bernie and Boatie illustrated by Lisa Williams, became an Amazon best seller. Children adore it, and with Jude Lennon, we expanded on the idea with an activity box called the Bernie and Boatie Build a Book Box. The campaign raised over £80,000 to get 7,000 boxes to deprived children in the Merseyside area. 

King Bee Animations came up with idea of an animated trailer for the book and made it happen with some great artistry from Sacha Dhawan and Melanie C who gifted their voices to the project.

Alongside that, the incredible artist Justin Eagleton designed a beautiful bespoke mural for the exterior of the boat I was rowing in, and early on in the campaign we ran a national schools’ art competition where the winners had their artwork incorporated into the final mural. It was truly special to unveil the finished piece in October 2021, and seeing the competition winners’ reaction in real time really brought home the wide-reaching impact of the campaign.

Ines. You captured everyone’s hearts and it was incredible to see the initial ideas become reality, I remember how it felt seeing the boat’s artwork unveiled at Greenwich and watching the book take shape.

Bernie. As the campaign built you brought some great people to the table, including Minister for Mental Health at the time, Gillian Keegan. You helped secure the government involvement – and along with ParentPay, our creatives, and the children, it meant we could just shout a little louder – so huge thanks to Farrer Kane for that.

Ines. And then of course behind the scenes you were doing your training for the row itself, which I know was a huge strain on your physical and mental health. You were out on the ocean for 109 days in total, and it was not easy – but what were the highlights when they came?

Bernie. Talking to you! There are not many PR companies you can ring up and say “I’m in a state”. I remember you talked to me, told me not to worry, reassured me I’d done a great job. Your words of encouragement inspired me!

Then the marine life: the whales and the sharks that came by, the birds that roosted on the boat in storms. The pods of dolphins that played, the sea turtles that came and said hi.

And the weather was just remarkable: seventeen storm systems. I thought I could cope with an Atlantic storm – I had seen pictures – but when you are there, you’re taken aback by the power of mother nature. You see 40 or 50 ft waves coming towards you in your little 7 metre boat. However strong you think you are, when nature wants to bite – it will get you.

Then there were days with lovely sunsets, shooting stars overheard, and the sunrises were spectacular.

It was a journey where you got in touch yourself and reset your values about what really matters in life. So many highlights and so many challenges on the way too.

Ines. It must have felt monumental to reach dry land after so many months at sea.

Bernie. Getting across the finish line was the most incredible feeling because I thought I would never get there. I’d lost 2.5 stone and bust my leg.

I still get emotional now when I think about it. I have an amazing partner in Sharon, I love her to bits, and knowing she was there at the end, I couldn’t wait to throw myself into her arms. She had cared for me all the way: putting up with lots of times when I wanted to quit – inspiring me, giving me love and passing on all the supportive messages. I didn’t know Lewis my son was going to be there, plus one of my dearest friends – Clint Wilson (of ParentPay) – had diverted a journey from the States, so I just broke down.

Ines. Running the Boat of Hope social channels we really saw what a community you brought together. You made such valuable connections through social media. It was truly inspiring to support you and the campaign because we could see what it meant to so many people. With all that behind you, what’s next?

Bernie. After the row, the Boat of Hope campaign moved on to its final phase with a mind-blowing installation and exhibition at Liverpool Cathedral, where the creatives excelled themselves. We exhibited the boat and all the creative art from the children and had an amazing ocean sound scape from a local high school. Our book has been made into a play which premiered at the exhibition.  

I’ve also been chosen to carry the Baton of Hope in London – it’s like the Olympic torch relay for mental health. I’m carrying it to raise awareness of suicide risk, which is an incredible honour.

Beyond that I’m starting to research getting into House of Lords as a non-political peer where I hope to be a voice for the third sector.

I can’t thank you and the Farrer Kane team enough. You took time to understand what the campaign was about, then you went out and lived those values, you articulated it so brilliantly to the media, and you made it come to life in an incredible way. It would not have been the success story it’s been without the support that you have given us over last two years. A huge thank you from all of us to all of you.

Ines. On behalf of the whole team, it has been such an honour to work with you. The campaign struck a chord with so many people and really hit close to home. And for us as communications professionals the work has been so varied and exciting. Thank you– it’s been a joy.

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