News Analysis: Northern towns bid for a new image

As Burnley embarks on an image makeover, Sarah Robertson investigates how towns in the North of England are boosting their image to attract business and tourists and quash the prejudices of a London-centric media.

It's grim up North, or so they say - a long-standing attitude that means towns in the North of England face a huge PR challenge. While most of the big cities such as Newcastle and Leeds have shaken off the stereotypes of flat caps, whippets and poverty, PROs and community leaders in small northern towns maintain that they still suffer the prejudice of a southern-biased media that fail to reflect their thriving economies and vibrant communities.

They claim the national media sustain the grim-up-North image and portray them as a homogeneous entity instead of separate modern areas.

The Lancashire town of Burnley was particularly tarnished by widespread coverage of the 2001 race riots, and last week called in Marina Pirotta Communications (MPC) to give it an image overhaul.

Burnley - whose football club has the distinction of being ex-Number Ten comms chief Alastair Campbell's favourite team - two years ago formed a public-private action group. The organisation, Burnley Action Partnership (BAP), has been promoting the town to the rest of the country.

Now, with the help of an external agency, BAP is drawing up a three-year communications strategy to banish the stereotypes. MPC managing director Marina Pirotta says: 'Our research demonstrated that the North is seen as remote from city centres, old-fashioned and out of date. From a southern perspective, the image is often one of cloth caps.'

The heritage of northern towns is dominated by their industrial past, but despite the demise of the traditional industries of mining, fishing and textiles, their images prevail. 'Burnley is renowned for its heritage, which is a mixed blessing but to a large degree holds it back. Now it is looking for a new identity for the future which maintains pride,' Pirotta says.

Hull and Grimsby are trying to shake off the perception of being a mecca for the fishing industry, which was disbanded in the 1970s. Towns like Middlesbrough are benefiting from local newspaper campaigns and their sporting success. When Middlesbrough FC won the Carling Cup in February, the town enjoyed a huge image boost, according to Evening Gazette editor Steve Dyson.

Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan agrees that sporting achievements can be key to a town's PR. 'It is very difficult to change the national media's perception of certain locations, but sporting success helps,' he says.

Meanwhile, the Yorkshire town of Castleford has been chosen by Channel 4 for a £5m architectural makeover. The channel intends to screen the results of its brainstorming project next year.

BURNLEY

Burnley Action Partnership (BAP) hired Marina Pirotta Comms (MPC) to draw up a three-year communications strategy to update the image of the Lancashire town. The strategy includes a festival and events programme, and a scheme to develop local and national 'ambassadors' to sell the town's assets.

Working with Burnley Marketing Partnership, the council wants to distance itself from the image of a sleepy place miles from city centres, to promote its low-cost housing and low cost of living.

BAP manager Helen Barry says: 'The race riots raised Burnley's profile in a negative way and we need to present the positive (aspects).' MPC managing director Marina Pirotta adds: 'Burnley needs to have messages about it being a good place to have children, its events and its easily accessible facilities.'

GRIMSBY

Grimsby - even the name conjures up a bleak picture. Frequently ridiculed in the national media, and once offered as a weekend break booby prize by Blind Date, the town knows that the rest of the country thinks it smells of fish. Grimsby Evening Telegraph assistant editor Michelle Hirst says: 'We get ridiculed through soaps and are the butt of jokes with people like Bernard Manning. Grimsby is widely perceived as smelling of fish but it doesn't. Many southerners are buying homes here. It is becoming a retirement area for business people.'

Grimsby Council comms officer Sam Higginson says the town is an easy target for ridicule when there is so much going on in London and the South.

'We have a sink estate image whereas in reality the North is catching up with the South in terms of house prices and the economy,' he says.

MIDDLESBROUGH

Teesside Evening Gazette editor Steve Dyson admits the area has little significance to the London-based media. The town of Middlesbrough is frequently misspelt and its image in the South is negative. However, the paper is running a Tees Pride campaign to promote the area and claims to have recently stopped the closure of one of the area's steel-making plants by targeting decision-makers in Whitehall with its coverage.

Dyson says: 'There is a London bias against many areas north of the Watford Gap without a metropolitan element. We are trying to create an impression of reality against the perception that Middles-brough is going nowhere.

'Yes, it is poor and needs investment, but it is set in an area of beauty and has a caring community that wants to work hard.'

HULL

Hull was named the worst place to live in the UK by the book Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places To Live In The UK, published last October. But Hull has seen significant investment over the last four years.

Recent developments are the multi-million pound underground aquarium serving as a tourist attraction and the Kingston Communications Stadium - home of Hull City Football Club and rugby league's Hull FC. A multi-million-pound retail centre is also about to open in the city.

Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan, who is also director of Hull City Image, a public-private venture dedicated to promoting the city, says: 'There is a lot of work being done to change the image of Hull outside the city. There's no point saying anywhere is a great place to live or work if it isn't, so there has been a lot of investment.'

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