FOCUS: THE MIDLANDS - A new view of middle England/Thanks to the fact that its manufacturing base has remained relatively intact, Midlands PR firms are finding little difficulty in attracting national and international clients. Karen Dempsey reports

The Midlands is in good shape. Confidence is growing, business is buoyant, and the cracks that appeared in the economy at the end of the recession are no longer visible. The Midlands - the region defined by the IPR as stretchi ng from Birmingham to Northampton to Milton Keynes - is enjoying a cultural and economic renaissance. The challenge for Midlands PR practitioners is to communicate this fight-back to a wider audience.

The Midlands is in good shape. Confidence is growing, business is

buoyant, and the cracks that appeared in the economy at the end of the

recession are no longer visible. The Midlands - the region defined by

the IPR as stretchi ng from Birmingham to Northampton to Milton Keynes -

is enjoying a cultural and economic renaissance. The challenge for

Midlands PR practitioners is to communicate this fight-back to a wider

audience.



The Midlands’ major city, Birmingham, has particular reason to

celebrate.



’Birmingham is mobilising itself for 1998 - the most significant,

headline-grabbing year in its history as it plays host to the G8 summit,

the Lions International Convention and the Eurovision Song Contest,’

says Fred Bromwich, Midlands Group IPR chairman. ’It will also be the

year when a lot more people outside the region will wake up to the fact

that the city’s PR industry is also a player in the international

league.’



An organisation that is already directing its PR towards the

international stage is Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. It puts

on more than 170 shows and events and attracts more than four million

people to the city each year. The remit for Elizabeth Clifford, who

heads a five-strong media and external relations team, covers local,

regional, national and international PR.



Birmingham-based David Clarke Associates - which is part of the Edelman

network and therefore has access to international resources - does work

for the NEC’s exhibition division. For national work, Clifford has hired

Key Communications with a brief to upgrade the profile of Birmingham in

the national broadsheet press.



’There has been a lot of investment in the city in the public and

private sector and we now need to re-establish our identity and reflect

what is now reality,’ says Clifford. ’We have to make sure the press

doesn’t bring out old pictures of the Bull Ring and Spaghetti Junction

because that’s not what it’s about any more.’



What it is currently about is proactive and positive PR for the

region.



Birmingham-based Willoughby Public Relations is co-ordinating a campaign

for the CBI, which has the backing of 30 commercial companies in the

area, to change the general perception of the West Midlands and to

attract future investment to the region.



The agency’s managing director Julia Willoughby says that the high

percentage of national and international campaigns coming out of the

region is a reflection of its manufacturing base. 28 per cent of the

region is employed in manufacturing, particularly in the automotive

industry, with companies such as Rover, Peugeot and Jaguar

havingfactories in the region.



’As manufacturing companies need to compete on the world market, they

need PR to support that with more international and European campaigns,’

she says.



This is good news for the local PR market, and many agencies, especially

in the Birmingham area - Seal PR, Key Communications, Barkers - boast a

high number of national accounts in their portfolios.



Dianne Page, managing director at Barkers in Birmingham says: ’Most of

our clients are not based in the West Midlands and we work for national

brands. We are not second division teams because we choose not to live

in London.’



But Seal PR’s managing director Steve Dann, admits that often ’Midlands

consultancies have to work harder to convince London-based companies to

come out of London’.



However, not all regionally-based consultancies are fighting to win

London business. Charles Mulraine, managing director of Leamington

Spa-based consultancy PRA Communications, says that he prefers to work

with Midlands-based businesses. The agency has clients in the

manufacturing, engineering and professional services industries.

’Clients realise the benefit of having advice close to headquarters,’ he

says.



Michael Ryan Communications, which specialises in marketing services

accounts, even chose to relocate to Northamptonshire because it was

central and therefore convenient to reach its client base which spreads

across the UK.



The benefit of having contacts with the local market is key to major

companies based in the region, which are particularly proactive in terms

of community PR.



Birmingham-based Cadbury, for example, is a nationally-known brand and

uses Charles Barker in London for its branding and corporate PR. But it

also uses Smart Communications in Solihull to handle its local community

PR.



’We have a reputation as an important player in the local community and

the local PR role is to highlight the continuing commitment to the

community,’ says Cadbury’s media relations manager Tony Bilsborough.

Cadbury has a small in-house PR team and therefore outsources most of

its PR on a local and national level. This is not the case for another

national brand based in the Midlands: Boots the Chemist in

Nottingham.



It has a 32-strong in-house consumer PR team led by director of PR Jayne

Mayled who oversees the consumer PR for 55,000 products and recently

brought the PR for cosmetic brands No7 and 17 in-house. She oversees PR

on a number of levels, from national branding work to cause related PR -

such as the breast cancer awareness month.



Many companies do not have the luxury of a large in-house team, and have

to outsource their PR. But there is no lack of choice - particularly

those seeking a smallish consultancy. What is typical of the region -

especially the East Midlands - is the plethora of small and medium-sized

PR agencies and a generous peppering of one and two-person owner-managed

operations.



The national PR brands established in the region include Harrison Cowley

and Citigate in Birmingham and Grayling in Birmingham and

Nottingham.



While other home-grown players include Audax Communications and Gemini

PR in Nottingham, Rock Kitchen Harris in Leicester, and Paskett PR in

Derby.



With so many different small and medium players, there has been a

tendency to specialise into niche sectors. Michael Ryan Communications

in Northampton, for example, specialises in marketing services, TMP PR

in Leicestershire positions itself as a fashion specialist, Willoughby

PR has expertise in home and property as well as consumer accounts,

while financial PR remains the niche market for Citigate in

Birmingham.



’Many of the larger agencies in Birmingham are also niche players,

having developed their own expertise, whether it is consumer, retail,

food and drink or business-to-business,’ says Bromwich.



However, most PR consultancies in the region say that there is a

buoyancy in the market to the point where there is often more work than

they can handle. The only blot on the landscape is finding the right

staff. Many agencies point to the shortage of trained account handlers.

PRA’s Mulraine and Belinda Thompson, account director at Grayling in

Nottingham, both say that there is a dearth of middle managers - account

managers as opposed to those at junior or director level.



The Reputation Managers in Milton Keynes, in the south Midlands, has not

faced this problem, however. ’A recent development is the movement of

senior PR professionals out of London in search of a better quality of

life,’ says Jonathan Hemus, director at TRM. ’In the last six months

three consultants with extensive experience of London’s biggest PR

agencies have joined us, rather than continue their careers in ’the

smoke’.’



Mayled at Boots says she has no problem in recruiting to her team, but

she is also proactive in her approach and aims to dispel some of the

myths about working outside of London. She is thinking about holding an

open day in London to meet potential recruits because, she says,

’sometimes people don’t know what PR outside London might mean’.



CASE STUDY: BEATING THE BLUES IN BIRMINGHAM



It’s booming, bustling, brash and home of the Balti. But has anyone

noticed that Birmingham is becoming ever so slightly fashionable?



Sam Warnock, PR director at Birmingham Marketing Partnership, is in

charge of promoting this image. Since BMP was founded in 1993, Warnock

and his team have led a marketing campaign for the city aimed at

improving its image as a business and leisure centre, to both national

and international audiences.



BMP’s role is to create ’one voice’ for promoting Birmingham as a

conference and exhibition centre, as an industrial location for national

and overseas investors, and as a tourism, leisure, and shopping

destination.



If BMP speaks with ’one voice’, it must account for itself to a number

of different masters. Birmingham City Council funds just under a third

of its pounds 3.3 million annual budget - with other contributions

coming from European grants, regional development boards, and commercial

activities.



But BMP also relies heavily for funding and logistical support on the

Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and other private business organisations

to help push Birmingham’s corporate image to target audiences. This has

allowed BMP to run an aggressive campaign of attracting visits from

overseas and national press, potential investors and key decision makers

involved in deciding where to locate prestigious events and

conferences.



BMP admits that some people’s views of Birmingham remain shaped more by

fleeting industrial vistas from the M6 rather than the canal-side

brasseries and performances of Simon Rattle’s symphony orchestra.



But as former PR manager for Glasgow’s ’City of Culture’ project,

Warnock has learnt a thing or two about marketing the upbeat side of old

industrial cities, apparently in decline.



’We organise around 70 press visits a year,’ says Warnock. ’And the

hardest part is initially convincing the press to come from New York,

Paris, Manchester or London. But once they are here, the city sells

itself,’ he claims.



And if perceptions of Birmingham are changing, Warnock can thank a wave

of recent city development which has managed to complement rather than

obliterate a historic landscape routed in the Industrial Revolution and

Victorian eras.



BMP’s task now is to take advantage of marketing opportunities arising

from Birmingham playing host to next year’s G8 economic summit and the

Eurovision Song Contest. BMP is working withthe Foreign and Commonwealth

Office to ensure the smooth running of the G8 event.



’We are expecting an influx of 7,000 people into the city for that, and

I’m hoping to get Bill Clinton playing his saxophone at Ronnie Scott’s

at some point - stranger things have happened!’ he says.



A week later, the Eurovision Song Contest arrives in town. ’One of the

reasons that Birmingham landed the G8 and Eurovision was that we showed

that we could pull all our different organisations together, and offer a

one-stop-shop,’ says Warnock.



’We have already started work with the BBC about how we will handle the

event. It’s the sort of publicity, alongside hosting the G8 summit,

which we could not hope to buy.’



Michael Kavanagh



CASE STUDY: NATIONAL GRID PILES ON THE COMMUNITY SPIRIT



Nobody really wants to live next door to electricity sub-stations or in

the shadow of electricity pylons.



But since last year Coventry-based National Grid Company has been

working with Birmingham PR agency Barkers on a ’cold sell’ community

relations programme to overcome potential hostility among those

immediately affected by the National Grid’s infrastructure.



According to Clive Hawkins, community relations manager at National

Grid: ’When we have to do work, we want people to understand what it’s

about, appreciate the need for the work, and know who to get in touch

with if there’s a problem,’ says Hawkins.



One key element of the campaign has been the sponsorship of a ’Working

Countryside’ exhibition aimed at the rural community.



The show, based around exhibits from the Shropshire County Museum,

illustrates farming life prior to the creation of the National Grid in

the 1920s.



Ian Bates, account handler at Barkers, says opening nights on the

exhibition’s tour were used to invite key landowners, councillors and

other regional decision makers to informally meet National Grid

executives. The exhibition also won extensive coverage from local

press.



’The events helped get across to decision-makers the benefits that the

network provides. If you have pylons on someone else’s property, it’s

important that you build relationships and an acceptance that the pylons

are there,’ says Bates.



The client and agency have also been working hard to improve public

acceptance of its urban sub-station network.



One crucial threat to the effectiveness of the campaign receded in

September when legal actions against the National Grid and regional

generating companies was dropped, after new research revealed no link

between overhead cabling close to housing and leukaemia.



However, the potential for ’not-in-my-backyard’ arguments against urban

grid infrastructure remains.



Hence Barkers has run two sub-station ’community forums’ in the Midlands

and North West region, which combine barbecues, entertainment and

station tours for local residents to achieve a feel-good factor.



Over 180 invitations out of 200 were accepted to one of the open days

arranged by Barkers. Positive feedback from the initial pilot prompted

National Grid to roll out its open day programme, with a total of eight

held this year across the Grid’s six transmission regions.



According to Hawkins: ’People may have been living around our

sub-stations for 20 or 30 years, but these informal open days were the

first opportunities for these people to see inside and put questions to

National Grid staff.’



Michael Kavanagh.



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