Media Analysis: BBC brings clout to regional media

The BBC's decision to transfer nationally focused media staff outside London has been welcomed by PROs, but they argue it has been long overdue. Joe Lepper reports.

A frequent gripe among PR agencies outside London is that journalists and potential clients wrongly believe they are merely local agencies that can't do national work.

The reality, agencies in places such as Manchester, Bristol and Norwich would argue, is that they are most definitely national. They just happen to be based outside of the capital.

It is with this ethos partly in mind that the BBC last week announced its manifesto for the corporation, 'Building Public Value: Renewing the BBC for a Digital World'. With the corporation's very survival at stake amid a government review of its charter, the document seeks to highlight its commitment to public service broadcasting.

National organisation

At the heart of this is an emphasis on the BBC seeking to shed its London-centric image and become a truly national organisation. Proposed is a massive cash injection to transfer a raft of nationally focused journalistic, production and commissioning editor roles outside London, with the Manchester operation set to see the largest expansion. Dramatic new offices in Birmingham and Glasgow are also in the pipeline.

The investment in Manchester has been greeted with excitement by agencies and PROs in the North West. Paul Smith, associate director of Manchester-based City Press, says the move represents a huge opportunity to get stories that previously were only seen as having a local angle to a national media.

As an example, he cites one client, Liverpool-based Cains Brewery, which recently became the first brewery to put binge-drinking warnings on its products. 'This was reported on the BBC locally, but it was picked up nationally. This latest announcement by the BBC will make that process of making a story go national easier,' he says.

Daniel Harrison, director at Manchester-based Spin Media, says the decision is welcome as many national journalists, particularly on business desks, are too London-centric. He points to national coverage of congestion charging in London: 'It has very little impact on our lives yet we are bombarded with coverage about it. It may be important to journalists in London but not to most people in Britain.'

Harrison adds that he was disheartened by the failure of national journalists to cover a recent story on behalf of client Co-operative Bank. The bank was involved in the largest structured finance deal by a North West banker, relating to a £325m development at Manchester Airport: 'The airport is the hub of the economy in a big area. It's a major story and deserved at the very least a few paragraphs, but business journalists in London weren't interested. They couldn't see beyond the City.'

He says that aside from the anticipated culture change among journalists, the bolstering of Manchester's image as a media centre is certain to boost the number of PR graduates wanting to join non-London-based agencies and will help recruitment in general.

The newly elected chair of the IPR North West group Sally Sykes says the decision is long overdue, adding: 'It gives further recognition that this is an area that is a centre for creative industries and will create a bigger talent pool.'

Those BBC staff already based in Manchester agree that the city and its area already has a good base in terms of talent and creative vibrancy for this proposed expansion. BBC Entertainment, Manchester assistant producer Karen Gabay says: 'Manchester is a vibrant and evolving creative base.'

Brahm joint managing partner Phil Reed says because much of his firm's work is already nationally focused, relations with national journalists in London and elsewhere are already cemented. He says the BBC's move will help to create a persuasive argument to potential clients that wrongly believe that an agency outside London is somehow second best: 'There are still some that think that if you are not in London you don't have access to national journalists. That simply isn't true.'

He anticipates the move could mean less photo-shoots and media launches having to take place in London. But Reed says that if other media firms, such as ITN, shifted operations to the regions, it would have an even bigger effect. The BBC already has a regional network, he explains, which means that if the national BBC news editors want to cover a story then their local colleagues should be able to supply good images. This is less common with ITN, 'which doesn't have the same relationship with the commercial regional broadcasters'.

BBC West Midlands newsgathering editor Liz Cave suggests closer proximity to media professionals will be a great benefit for agencies outside of London: 'PR firms based in the West Midlands tend to understand our programming needs much better. We build up a relationship with them so they know what access we need on stories, and it saves time and effort on both sides.'

The trick will be to maintain national credentials while retaining local expertise.

REGIONAL PLEDGES IN BBC MANIFESTO

- Half of all its public service employees will be based outside London in the next ten years

- £1bn will be invested outside the capital over the next decade

- Plans are afoot to transform the Manchester operation into the largest broadcast centre outside London

- Intends to move a fifth of commissioning by value outside London.

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