There can be few regions of the country as affluent as the Home
Counties, yet this prosperity has not come without a price. Many towns,
such as Basingstoke, still bear the scars of brutal town planning, while
others, like Newbury, have become flashpoints between those who want
their town to expand and those who want to save green field sites at all
At a local level, PR is helping to address many of the problems
associated with transport, parking and the new retail and business
developments in the region.
The root of many of the current problems facing the Home Counties stems
from the 1960s when London’s population overspill was channelled
Basingstoke is a typical ’new town’. It may have attracted a wealth of
new business but urbanisation has obliterated the face of the quiet
Jacqueline Horrix, PR manager at Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council
is in charge of rescuing the town’s reputation, a task helped by a major
redevelopment of the town centre. The new pounds 250 million retail and
leisure complex will open in the year 2000 at Newmarket Square. Although
developer, Grosvenor, has hired London-based Christow Consultants to
manage the complex’s PR, Horrix sees its promotion as a matter for the
council as well.
’Residents pay their taxes and if things go wrong, we’ll get the flak,
not the PR consultancy or the developers, since they do not have enough
of a local identity yet,’ she says.
’There are a lot of local issues to address,’ she says, ’but on the
positive side, Basingstoke is known as a really horrible town which will
change with the development. This is what we want to push, especially
since residents will have to endure two to three years of chaos.’
Caraline Brown, MD of Brighton-based Midnight Communications approves of
this approach. ’What is needed on a PR level, for any kind of new town
centre development, is to strengthen the sense of community.’
The residents of Reading, another overspill town, are being kept up to
speed on the development of the town’s pounds 250 million new shopping
and leisure centre by Reading-based PR consultancy Companycare. Managing
director Ian McCann works closely with Katie Pattison, marketing manager
of property developers Hammerson and they both believe that harnessing
popular support is crucial to the success of The Oracle shopping centre,
which is due to open in September 1999.
The PR campaign has involved establishing community initiatives, such as
The Oracle Schools Programme, and communicating with residents and
business through newsletters and updates sent through the post. In
addition, The Oracle Information Centre has been opened next to the site
and The Oracle Charter has been launched. The charter is a pledge made
by sub-contractors to employ as many local people as possible.
Pattison is impressed by the support and assistance the development has
received from Reading Borough Council. ’It is very proactive, which
stems from its bid to become a city. The partnership with them has
worked so well that they come to us for advice on other issues.’
Public/private sector partnerships are increasingly important to PR
people in the Home Counties. Gill Craig, director of The WhiteOaks
Consultancy, says she has been working with town and district councils
for her client NTL CableTel, while Horrix has been working with the
local emergency services.
In fact, she is now on 24-hour call out to Basingstoke police, which
does not have a local press department.
Her press-handling skills were recently called upon following a gas leak
in the town, later reported on the national news. Horrix managed the
media and distributed press releases, enabling the emergency services to
do their job. ’Partnerships like this can work to promote or diffuse a
situation. Our aim is to ensure Basingstoke’s reputation doesn’t suffer
While Basingstoke is trying to improve its image, nearby Newbury is
endeavouring to preserve its reputation as a market town with
considerable charm. The town was the scene of a bitter battle between
environmentalists opposed to the town’s bypass and residents who wanted
an end to the endless stream of cars and lorries running through their
Newbury-based Vodafone is likely to become the next focus of
environmentalists’ anger following the opening of the bypass. Vodafone
has submitted a planning application to build a new 500,000 sq ft head
office complex on the edge of town, and is using PR as its first line of
Vodafone corporate communications manager Mike Caldwell says: ’The big
debate is whether the town should be rolled back to the days when the
cows came into market or whether the 2,000 jobs at Vodafone should be
kept for the town.’
The problem is the new premises would not only be built on an
out-of-town field, but, ironically, they would create another 1,000
jobs, raising concerns of where any extra housing would be situated.
The application, which will be considered next March, was submitted in
early November 1998. However, the PR campaign started almost a year
A brochure on Vodafone’s plans was produced, complete with a tear-off
postcard asking residents if they wanted the company to stay in the town
and if the council should give planning consent to the proposed
Caldwell says: ’The vote could have gone against us, but I am pleased to
say 97 per cent wanted us to stay in Newbury, while 86 per cent were
happy to see planning permission approved. The survey has enabled us to
claim the high ground when we submitted our planning application.’
Part of the reason why Vodafone chose this particular site was its
proximity to major roads. Transport continues to be a major headache in
Most practitioners agree better public transport is the answer, but
realise the difficulties of promoting it when it is often unreliable.
The M25 is unpopular and parking is difficult in most towns, including
Oxford and Brighton. However, it appears one new town, Milton Keynes,
has escaped the parking problems of its neighbours, and it is all down
to 1960s town planning.
Jonathan Hemus, deputy managing director, The Reputation Managers says:
’The grid system is fantastic. There is no rush hour, at worst, there
are seven cars queued up at a roundabout.’
’Everyone is very pro-Milton Keynes. There is a real desire to improve
its reputation,’ enthuses Hemus, proving that people are the best form
of PR for a town.
PEARL: COMMUNICATING ITS CARING ATTITUDE
Pearl, one of the UK’s leading pensions, insurance and savings
companies, approached Milton Keynes-based The Reputation Managers in
March 1998 to help enhance its reputation as a ’home service’
Through customer and employee research, Pearl identified after-school
childcare as an increasingly important concern to its customers and
their families around the country.
Having decided to support the Kids’ Network Club - the charity which
campaigns for out of school child care nationwide - Pearl appointed the
agency to help maximise the value of the sponsorship.
The Reputation Managers decided to test out the initiative over a three
month period. A club in Enderby, Leicestershire was selected as a pilot
and Pearl invested pounds 10,000 to employ an additional playworker.
’Our remit was to create a programme of activity that involved the local
Pearl representatives, the community and opinion formers and also
generated media coverage, says The Reputation Managers deputy managing
director Jonathan Hemus. ’We arranged everything from face painting, to
a visit from the local MP. It was really important for us to test out
just how much coverage could be achieved for Pearl in a tight timescale
and with a finite range of relevant media, so that the potential for a
national initiative could be assessed.’
Over a 12-week period, the story was picked up by local media, including
the Leicester Mercury and BBC Radio Leicester.
Based on the success of the pilot, Pearl decided to go national with a
pounds 2 million investment in 180 clubs across the country, starting
from January 1999.
The national launch took place on 12 November at a Kids’ Club at Mereway
Lower School in Northampton. Damon Hill, a member of the Pearl-sponsored
Jordan Formula One team, was invited to the launch and a Scalextric
Grand Prix was organised with the children. Pearl managing director
Richard Surface also attended the event and took part in Go Karting.
In addition, a celebration cake, in the form of a Jordan Formula One
car, was presented to the children. The story was picked up by a wide
range of local and national newspapers, including the Express, and by
BBC East Central.
Hemus says: ’Pearl approached this initiative in a very focused and
strategic way. They distilled the values of the company and chose a
community relations programme that communicated them. Our role was to
take this on a stage by promoting Pearl’s involvement to further
underline its approach and philosophy.’
SURFING IN BRIGHTON: AGE IS NO BARRIER ON THE INTERNET
Like many agencies in the south, Brighton’s Midnight Communications
specialises in hi-tech PR. This summer, the agency was approached by
Sussex-based internet service provider ArgoNet to help increase its
The three-month campaign was allocated a PR budget of just pounds
Midnight Communications MD Caraline Brown says the agency began by
conducting research on ArgoNet’s customer base. The findings revealed an
unusually high number of users in their 60s. It was decided that this
group, which is known to have a high amount of free time and disposable
income, would be specifically targeted. The term ’Silver Surfers’ was
coined by Midnight for the campaign.
Midnight planned a one-off internet workshop at Brighton Internet cafe,
surfers@paradise, for over-60s. Within days, all 30 places were
’The pensioners were given an hour’s tutorial by our own staff, covering
the basics of the internet,’ says Brown.
The event itself was a success, with stories appearing in the Evening
Argus, the Brighton and Hove Leader and the Bexhill Observer. It also
was covered on BBC Southern Counties Radio and Southern FM. The best
result, however, was a surprising news hook which came to light.
Brown says: ’We had assumed that the Silver Surfers would wish to visit
travel and gardening web sites, but in fact the majority asked for
information about how to check their share prices.’
Realising the potential of this story, Midnight drafted a press release
about the buying power of Silver Surfers and distributed it to the
national media. The item was subsequently picked up and used for a
feature on the internet and share dealing in Business and Technology
magazine. It was also covered by home computing titles, including
Revolution and Internet Access Made Easy.
Since the campaign, Brown says sales of ArgoNet have increased among the
target group. The term Silver Surfers has been used extensively by the
media as a generic term for internet use by the over-60s and ArgoNet has
been used as a sounding board for internet issues relating to this
particular age group.