The neighbouring northern cities of Bradford and Leeds, parts of
which are beset by urban decay, neglected by successive governments and
plagued by drugs, high crime rates and poor housing have appointed
senior PR people to revamp their towns’ images and reinvigorate their
From now on, they shall be known as Bradford, ’home of the national film
and television museum,’ and Leeds, ’the town Harvey Nichols chose when
it looked beyond Knightsbridge’.
The twin Yorkshire PR initiatives are part of a wider trend of urban
regeneration. Last week’s Queen’s speech included fresh legislation to
allow local communities to directly elect executive mayors on the model
planned for London next May. The theory is that having a powerful
figurehead strengthens a city’s identity, and helps it to build a story
to tell the outside world.
Telling that story is the next step. Bradford City Council this week
hired 31-year-old Owen Williams as its new marketing and communications
director. Williams starts work in the new year. The importance of his
post is demonstrated by his salary package - just over pounds 63,000 -
and by the fact that he is the first council staffer at director level
brought in without a directorate in existence beneath him.
Williams, who left school at 18 and made his local name in advertising
and strategic media planning, says his first task is to listen to the
people of Bradford.
’Once we know how the people of the city view and want to view
themselves, we can turn outwards to rebrand the product ’Bradford’,’ he
On the face of it, the city is in need of rebranding. Over the last 40
years 63,000 textile jobs have been lost, and unemployment is now 1.6
per cent above the national average at 6.6 per cent. The last time
Bradford hit our TV screens in June 1995, cars were burning and shops
were being looted in run-down terraced streets. Williams has a big job
on his hands.
His brief is wide-ranging and includes communicating with local
citizens, the media, the business community and Government. The media
tools he uses to do the job will depend on the outcome of the
His local roots may help him, as may those of Susan Pitter. Pitter plays
an unusual PR role. She’s in charge of improving the image of just two
areas of her native Leeds - Chapeltown and Harehills. Pitter’s project,
the Leeds Urban Initiative, combines straight PR with changes to local
organisation in the hope of improving the regard with which two of
Leeds’ poorest areas are held.
Chapeltown and Harehills lie just north of Leeds city centre. Urban
myths about people being dragged from cars and robbed at traffic lights,
are common. Some local taxi firms refuse to enter the areas. Pitter aims
to change all that with a combination of good PR and pounds 3 million of
council money to effect material change.
A graduate in PR from Leeds Metropolitan University, Pitter is aided by
the pro bono efforts of Sinclair Mason PR’s Leeds office. As in
Bradford, those with a stake in the project include local government,
business, media people and PROs.
Some of the initiatives pursued by Pitter - staging public meetings to
generate a sense of community and sending newsletters to 8,000 local
residents - are being covered by the Leeds media as news events in
themselves, because Pitter and her bosses in the council have at the
heart of their regeneration strategy the principle of keeping the press
Giving communities a new identity is a long game. Brendan Murphy, media
relations head for the Local Government Association, says it can take
years to turn a city’s reputation around. It is not simply that politics
and PR can be used together to achieve this goal, it is that they
He points out that some local authorities which are making good progress
in the way they are managed, can be dealt terrible blows by factors
completely outside their control. But he suggests that PR can lead the
change, rather than simply respond to it. ’Manchester 15 years ago was
given a terrible time for spending money on ’gay’ causes, by the local
press’ he says.
’Now, the thriving gay village in Manchester is an international
cultural selling point, and the hostile press has been silenced.’
Reputation PR consultant and ex-head of press for Coventry council Mark
Fletcher considers local government to be a total brand and says it is
unrealistic to try and reposition it in its entirety, but that to change
perceptions of just one place is straightforward.
Fletcher says however that spinning alone is pointless. ’The PR has to
match the reality. Some local authorities promote themselves as 24-hour
cities, when this is patently not the case. It undermines their media
and regeneration strategy,’ he says.
Janine Watson, head of press for Manchester City Council, goes one step
further. She maintains that the process of changing people’s lives and
changing other people’s perceptions of those lives are inseparable.
’Rebuilding after the Arndale centre bomb, hosting the Commonwealth
Games in 2002, regenerating the deprived parts of east Manchester and so
on, have made a difference to people’s lives. Spinning them only
involves telling the truth,’ Watson says.
As Susan Pitter fights to change perceptions of Leeds’ depressed areas,
and Williams does the same for Bradford, they would do well to remember