FOCUS: THE MIDLANDS - Benefits of a central location/As businesses based in the Midlands shift from a ’London is best’ attitude and are demanding local knowledge, it is PR agencies which are cashing in Jennifer Whitehead reports.

There is no denying that this year has been a big one for the Midlands-the most powerful leaders in the world converged on Birmingham for the G8 summit in May and the same month saw the attention of Europe focused on the city again for the Eurovision Song Contest.

There is no denying that this year has been a big one for the

Midlands-the most powerful leaders in the world converged on Birmingham

for the G8 summit in May and the same month saw the attention of Europe

focused on the city again for the Eurovision Song Contest.



Understandably, those who work in the PR industry in the Midlands are

keen to point out the work the industry is doing both promoting itself

and the region. Although there is justifiable regional pride, Mark

Triggs, director of Key Communications based in Birmingham, points out:

’In terms of who is doing the most creative campaigns or the best work

for their clients, I’m sure there is no difference between those working

in Edinburgh to those in Bournemouth or anywhere in between.’



A survey, carried about by Staffordshire-based PR consultancy Brookes

and Vernons among journalists, revealed that in response to the question

of the location of a PR company, most said: ’It’s not as important as

the quality of the work.’



Bronwen Eames, managing director Brookes and Vernons says: ’Recent

account wins have included national clients needing a consultancy with

relevant experience. They prefer an agency which is conveniently located

for them.’



However, for clients based in the Midlands, an important component of

that quality of service is a knowledge of the region and an

understanding of the issues which drive its economy and affect its

populace.



Gordon Brown, head of marketing, Midlands, for the world’s largest

accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) is adamant that this was an

important factor in the recent appointment of Key Communications as its

retained PR consultancy.



’Although PWC is a global brand, my target audience is the East and West

Midlands, so as far as I was concerned I wanted someone who was embedded

in the geography. There are certain nuances in the business community

which quite frankly aren’t important as far as London is concerned, it

just misses totally.



’As a consequence of that we wanted to make sure the messages being put

out are relevant to our regional business community. So we had to have a

PR agency which worked here, which lived here and which understood the

nuances of what we were talking about.’



Sam Warnock, head of PR at the Birmingham Marketing Partnership,

agrees.



He says: ’I don’t think you can do better than call in a regional

consultancy if it’s a regional message you’re trying to put out. The

strengths with the London consultancies are in dealing with the national

press, but once you start getting into the region, very few London-based

PR consultancies have the strength or knowledge.’



Warnock has the dual challenge of selling Birmingham’s attractions as an

international conference and exhibition destination. Recently, as part

of the national campaign for the reform of England’s archaic licensing

laws, which are particularly well enforced in Birmingham, Warnock has

been involved in getting the Birmingham licensing justices and local MPs

on side.



’We’re trying to make Birmingham more of a 24-hour city. When we’re

bringing in five million-plus visitors every year for conferences and

exhibitions, a lot of them from Europe, they’re used to European

licensing laws where you can go out at ten o’clock at night and come

back at three in the morning,’ he says.



On a national level, the Birmingham Marketing Partnership is currently

involved in persuading the Government to invest in helping bring the

International Textile Machinery Association exhibition to Birmingham’s

recently-extended National Exhibition Centre. The selling point is not

only the immediate commercial benefits for the Midlands, but also the

fact that rather than spending more money on helping UK companies to

exhibit in Europe, less money is spent if the exhibition is held

here.



Not only is it important to target the regional audience, but Brown says

there are other issues in terms of representing the Midlands on the

national and international stage.



’The Midlands is very much the home of manufacturing, so we look at the

state of manufacturing: about the way the economy is going, how

manufacturing is changing and how that will impinge not only on the

regional economy but also on the national economy.



’Then we can take this forward from a national perspective. We actually

represent, for instance, the automotive industry which is firmly based

in the Midlands. We have one of our international centres of excellence

for the automotive industry in Birmingham itself. So that means we are

the spokesman of the UK, and even parts of Europe, for automotive

issues. That emanates from the geography.’



For whatever reason clients choose Midlands-based agencies, it seems

there is no shortage of work for them, and even with the threat of

recession looming, there is still business to be picked up. Ask PR

people in the region whether or not the recession is causing concern,

and the response is pragmatic.



Dianne Page, director of Birmingham-based Barkers PR, says: ’Things will

happen next year, certain clients are going to have a tough time, and

then they will be cutting their budgets. We’ve got to be prepared

now.’



Barkers has now employed its own in-house new business manager, and Page

says he is going ’hell for leather’ in targeting new prospects. She also

says that in these times, it makes sense to target companies where PR is

an essential part of the marketing mix.



On the other side of the coin are hi-tech specialists such as Citigate

Technology, based in Northampton. With the IT industry less

geographically entrenched, managing director Julie Clay and her clients

have different concerns. In the last recession, Clay points out that the

IT sector was less hard hit than many others, and although there is the

fallout of the crisis in the Far East, she is not overly concerned.



She says: ’At the moment a lot of our work comes through

recommendations. IT people also tend to move around quite a lot, so if

you’ve got a good relationship with them, they tend to take you with

them. PR is still quite young within the IT industry, and I think there

is still a lot of work out there to be picked up.



’There’s a lot of opportunity to educate, getting involved on the

strategy side and bringing it around to issues rather than

products.’



While most people believe there is still a lot of work to be won - and

this opinion is backed up with many agencies’ numerous recent account

wins and upcoming pitches - the problem turns to recruitment.



Karen-Anne Bernie, managing director of Wyatt International raises this

issue, saying that along with most of the country, she is having trouble

recruiting staff with several years’ experience. Consequently, says

Bernie, ’We are finding that younger individuals end up in senior PR

positions due to the sheer lack of people available, and they soon find

they are not really up to the demands of the post.’



She also highlights the problem of over-inflated salaries, saying it is

not unusual for people with one or two years’ experience to be asking

for salaries of pounds 20,000 to pounds 25,000 and a car.



And many say that as the current problem of staffing levels stems from

the last recession, there could be even greater problems in five years’

time.



But many comment on the air of confidence in the region. Mark Triggs

says: ’I don’t know if it’s Midlands specific, but I think there’s a

great air of confidence in this region. When you think what might happen

with our strong engineering sector you would think we would be all doom

and gloom.



’It’s not just in marketing and PR terms, but in terms of progressive

thinking, in moving forward. Birmingham is really reinventing itself in

a way that other cities aren’t - physically and perceptually as

well.’



REDEVELOPMENT: A KEY ROLE IN HAMMERSON’S BULL RING PLANS



Birmingham may not have a reputation as one of England’s most attractive

cities, but, as its residents are being informed, ’It’s time for a

change’.



And with the new Brindleyplace development and regenerated canal-side,

change is already underway.



However, the first sight greeting a visitor who arrives in Birmingham

via the A38 is the Bull Ring-a rundown concrete shopping centre.



Opened in 1964, the Bull Ring was once a source of pride for the city as

the world’s first multi-level city-centre shopping mall. Now it has

become an infamous landmark, and a seriously a dilapidated one at

that.



For years plans have been afoot to redevelop the area, but all have

fallen through until Hammerson UK Properties stepped in.



With extensive experience of international and UK property development,

such as shopping centres in Brent Cross, London and Reading, it bought

the Bull Ring site in 1996, planning to rejuvenate it as an attractive

shopping centre and market area.



Since acquiring the site, Hammerson began a campaign to get the

redevelopment underway. In October 1997, Key Communications was

appointed to work alongside Hammerson, targeting the media and the

public, and presenting the case for redevelopment to the council.



Key Communications’ strategy has been to get in touch with as many

interested parties as possible. This includes the Institute of Directors

and the CBI; the editors of publications such as the Evening Mail and

the Birmingham Post; the British Council for Shopping Centres, the

British Retail Consortium, local retailers and lettings agents. The

message is that it’s not just about shopping, but part of the urban

regeneration programme and will have a positive impact on the region’s

economy.



The site is such a strong symbol of the city that many people have

strong feelings about what should happen to it. If Hammerson is to win

the ’hearts and minds’ of the public it is crucial it puts across the

message that it can be trusted to develop the area sensitively, in a way

which reflects Birmingham’s spirit, and not just another chrome and

marble shopping mall.



The result has been hostile headlines turned to positive ones and a wide

level of support from Birmingham’s business community. Now that

Hammerson has won detailed planning permission as well as a road closure

permit, it looks as if the time for change has finally arrived.



PRCA: CONSULTANCIES JOIN FORCES TO RAISE PR AWARENESS



Until 1995, when Bryan Holden, chairman of Warwickshire-based Leader

Communications took over as chairman of the Midlands region PRCA group,

local members tended to view each other as potential competitors.

However, over the past three years, the 11 member agencies including

Paskett PR, and the Birmingham offices of Harrison Cowley and Grayling

have pulled together for mutual benefit.



To avoid losing work to other players in the marketing mix, the group

has overcome old rivalries and pulled together to raise awareness of the

PRCA and the role of PR in business success.



’We would all much rather pitch against each other to companies who are

serious about using a PR specialist, than compete with an advertising

agency or design consultancy,’ says Bronwen Eames, managing director of

Brookes and Vernons PR in Uttoxeter.



In June this year, to promote the PRCA and explode a few myths about the

PR industry, group members put together an eight-page supplement for the

Birmingham Post. This included articles about corporate reputation and a

feature entitled ’Why Go South for Quality PR?’ by Powell Cooper Drew

director, John Cooper. In addition, the group edited published material

written by members’ lead executives over the past two years, to create a

comprehensive pocket-sized brochure. Topics include ’Evaluation - The

Benefits’ and ’Crisis-What Crisis’.



By using these tactics to set out the professional standards membership

of the PRCA entails, such as commitments to ISO 9000 and Investors in

People, the group is starting to see a real growth in business from

Midlands-based companies.The group is also benefitting from a shift away

from the attitude that ’London is best’, experienced by all service

industries in the area.



For the future, the Midlands group is setting up a range of

presentations for marketing and management professional groups. These

include a range of business seminars with the Institute of Marketing and

the Institute of Directors. Eames says : ’These are the people we really

need to talk with, to make the business community aware of exactly what

is available to them.’ From the New Year, the lead executives from

member agencies, will be making presentations about the whole menu of

initiatives that the PRCA’s London headquarters have put in place over

the past 18 months.



In addition, Holden reports that ’activities since the summer, have

resulted in two major PR consultancies in the area joining the PRCA over

the next couple of weeks.



’We’ve got a spirit of getting things done and making things

happen.’



MARY COWLETT.



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