OPINION: News Analysis - Changing perceptions of what it’s like up North/Two northern towns have launched a PR initiative in a bid to fight stereotypical attitudes, attract investors and create a sense of identity within the area

The neighbouring northern cities of Bradford and Leeds, parts of which are beset by urban decay, neglected by successive governments and plagued by drugs, high crime rates and poor housing have appointed senior PR people to revamp their towns’ images and reinvigorate their communities.

The neighbouring northern cities of Bradford and Leeds, parts of

which are beset by urban decay, neglected by successive governments and

plagued by drugs, high crime rates and poor housing have appointed

senior PR people to revamp their towns’ images and reinvigorate their

communities.



From now on, they shall be known as Bradford, ’home of the national film

and television museum,’ and Leeds, ’the town Harvey Nichols chose when

it looked beyond Knightsbridge’.



The twin Yorkshire PR initiatives are part of a wider trend of urban

regeneration. Last week’s Queen’s speech included fresh legislation to

allow local communities to directly elect executive mayors on the model

planned for London next May. The theory is that having a powerful

figurehead strengthens a city’s identity, and helps it to build a story

to tell the outside world.



Telling that story is the next step. Bradford City Council this week

hired 31-year-old Owen Williams as its new marketing and communications

director. Williams starts work in the new year. The importance of his

post is demonstrated by his salary package - just over pounds 63,000 -

and by the fact that he is the first council staffer at director level

brought in without a directorate in existence beneath him.



Williams, who left school at 18 and made his local name in advertising

and strategic media planning, says his first task is to listen to the

people of Bradford.



’Once we know how the people of the city view and want to view

themselves, we can turn outwards to rebrand the product ’Bradford’,’ he

says.



On the face of it, the city is in need of rebranding. Over the last 40

years 63,000 textile jobs have been lost, and unemployment is now 1.6

per cent above the national average at 6.6 per cent. The last time

Bradford hit our TV screens in June 1995, cars were burning and shops

were being looted in run-down terraced streets. Williams has a big job

on his hands.



His brief is wide-ranging and includes communicating with local

citizens, the media, the business community and Government. The media

tools he uses to do the job will depend on the outcome of the

preliminary research.



His local roots may help him, as may those of Susan Pitter. Pitter plays

an unusual PR role. She’s in charge of improving the image of just two

areas of her native Leeds - Chapeltown and Harehills. Pitter’s project,

the Leeds Urban Initiative, combines straight PR with changes to local

organisation in the hope of improving the regard with which two of

Leeds’ poorest areas are held.



Chapeltown and Harehills lie just north of Leeds city centre. Urban

myths about people being dragged from cars and robbed at traffic lights,

are common. Some local taxi firms refuse to enter the areas. Pitter aims

to change all that with a combination of good PR and pounds 3 million of

council money to effect material change.



A graduate in PR from Leeds Metropolitan University, Pitter is aided by

the pro bono efforts of Sinclair Mason PR’s Leeds office. As in

Bradford, those with a stake in the project include local government,

business, media people and PROs.



Some of the initiatives pursued by Pitter - staging public meetings to

generate a sense of community and sending newsletters to 8,000 local

residents - are being covered by the Leeds media as news events in

themselves, because Pitter and her bosses in the council have at the

heart of their regeneration strategy the principle of keeping the press

on side.



Giving communities a new identity is a long game. Brendan Murphy, media

relations head for the Local Government Association, says it can take

years to turn a city’s reputation around. It is not simply that politics

and PR can be used together to achieve this goal, it is that they

must.



He points out that some local authorities which are making good progress

in the way they are managed, can be dealt terrible blows by factors

completely outside their control. But he suggests that PR can lead the

change, rather than simply respond to it. ’Manchester 15 years ago was

given a terrible time for spending money on ’gay’ causes, by the local

press’ he says.



’Now, the thriving gay village in Manchester is an international

cultural selling point, and the hostile press has been silenced.’



Reputation PR consultant and ex-head of press for Coventry council Mark

Fletcher considers local government to be a total brand and says it is

unrealistic to try and reposition it in its entirety, but that to change

perceptions of just one place is straightforward.



Fletcher says however that spinning alone is pointless. ’The PR has to

match the reality. Some local authorities promote themselves as 24-hour

cities, when this is patently not the case. It undermines their media

and regeneration strategy,’ he says.



Janine Watson, head of press for Manchester City Council, goes one step

further. She maintains that the process of changing people’s lives and

changing other people’s perceptions of those lives are inseparable.



’Rebuilding after the Arndale centre bomb, hosting the Commonwealth

Games in 2002, regenerating the deprived parts of east Manchester and so

on, have made a difference to people’s lives. Spinning them only

involves telling the truth,’ Watson says.



As Susan Pitter fights to change perceptions of Leeds’ depressed areas,

and Williams does the same for Bradford, they would do well to remember

this.



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