FOCUS: THE SOUTH - A broad attitude to local issues/Towns in the Home Counties are having to balance increasing business and the benefits it brings, with maintaining local character. Stephanie France reports

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 costs.

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

costs.



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

there.



Basingstoke is a typical ’new town’. It may have attracted a wealth of

new business but urbanisation has obliterated the face of the quiet

market town.



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

in anyway.’



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

town centre.



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

defence.



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

earlier.



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

site.



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

the region.



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’

provider.



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

market share.



The three-month campaign was allocated a PR budget of just pounds

5,000.



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

taken.



’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.



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