The great move North has begun. In the past few weeks, the first wave of BBC journalists have relocated to MediaCityUK, the new BBC North headquarters in Salford.
While the BBC has always had bases outside London, the relocation of 2,300 staff is a major symbolic move, and an attempt to improve relationships with audiences across the North of England.
BBC North's head of comms Sao Bui-Van says: 'It is a well-known fact that the further North you travel from the capital, the lower the approval rating for the BBC.'
A drive to provide more representative programmes, combined with the arrival of high-profile news outlets like Radio 5 Live and BBC Breakfast in Salford, could offer new opportunities for the PR community in the North of England.
BBC head of press and media relations Paul Mylrea says there will be a variety of expert commentators taking part in the shows. On a purely practical level, contributors who can get themselves to the studio quickly will be in demand.
Mylrea insists that the move will not affect the BBC's editorial news agenda. 'This is not about "let's get some Northern people on the TV". It's about making programmes more representative of the UK,' he says.
Despite the headlines the move has created, most agencies in the North West are playing down the impact on their businesses. Brazen founder Nina Webb says: 'We're incredibly proud of the fact that MediaCityUK is here, and support the regionalisation agenda, but I haven't rewritten my business plan on the back of it.'
With demands on journalists' time ever-increasing, the idea that PROs based in the North West will be schmoozing with the new arrivals is unlikely. 'It is wrong to see this as one-dimensional; that because you are closer to journalists, you are more likely to get coverage,' says Mylrea.
But understanding what people based outside London care about by getting out and speaking to people will be key to the success of the BBC's move, argues Julian Bailey, Morrisons' head of media relations, former editor of business programming on BBC Radio and planning editor at BBC News. He says journalists in BBC's Television Centre rarely venture out to meet contacts because their jobs are so production-based. 'The BBC needs to be careful that the walls of TV Centre are not replaced with the walls of MediaCityUK,' he warns.
Both BBC Breakfast and Radio 5 Live are very interviewee-intensive programmes. Bailey says: 'While the technology exists to do interviews down the line, it's much better to have guests in a studio. BBC Breakfast in particular places a lot of stall on having guests "on the couch".'
This means more opportunities for PROs with clients based near MediaCityUK who can comment on news issues. 'News is fast-moving and you need someone who is available quickly. The BBC will call on local experts to be in the studio,' says Bell Pottinger North's director of consumer PR Zoe Ensor.
2. CREATIVE INDUSTRY CLIENTS
'If the catalyst effect works and there is a huge growth in the creative industry around the country, then there will be an opportunity for PROs to get more clients,' says Mylrea.
Ensor says her agency is currently gearing up its offer for the creative industries. 'We are upskilling our staff and talking to that community. When we make new staff appointments, we are making sure they fit into this strategy,' she says.
3. FEWER CELEBRITIES?
The BBC is adamant the new location will not affect celebrity appearances on its shows: 'I dispute the suggestion of the BBC having fewer celebrity guests. That presupposes they are all based in the South,' says Mylrea. BBC North's head of comms Bui-Van agrees: 'Considering we had Lady Gaga in Carlisle recently, I don't think getting major talent to the North of England will be a problem.'
But for PROs with limited access to celebrities, dedicating at least four hours to travelling to and from MediaCityUK from London may prove a tough sell, particularly when they could visit many news organisations in London in the same time. 'It is incredibly unlikely that a lot of celebrities will go to Salford as part of their trip. If you have a busy schedule, the idea of travelling for two hours on a train to Salford is nonsensical,' says Bailey.
If there is a reduction in celebrity content, this means more opportunities for other stories. 'Don't you feel celebritied to death?' says The Co-Operative Group's head of group PR Russ Brady. 'The majority of us are ordinary people, and yet most of the things we read, see and talk about are celebrities,' he says. 'This is an opportunity to enable stories driven by real life to be given further exploration. Let's get Britain back into talking and debating real issues at a grass-roots level.'
4. CREATING JOURNALIST RELATIONSHIPS
While many PROs disagree proximity to journalists is important, being close does have some practical benefits, particularly when they first arrive in an unknown city. Brady advises caution: 'I hope the agency fraternity of Manchester see it as a good opportunity to build relationships, but don't do themselves a disservice by pestering people. A relationship has got to be developed in the right way.'
HOW I SEE IT - PR BOSSES ON HOW MEDIACITYUK WILL AFFECT THEIR BUSINESSES
JULIAN BAILEY - Head of media relations, Morrisons (HQ in Bradford); former BBC editor
It's a consistent issue for us that even though we have a market share much bigger than some of our rivals, those that are based in the South East tend to get a better share of voice on the BBC. Having more of a BBC presence in the North will help to ensure businesses there are better represented.
Possibly more BBC stories will come from the North with this move. For example, the closure of the Christmas hamper business Farepak went under the BBC's radar and didn't get the prominence it deserved, probably because most people in the BBC didn't understand the product.
But you could easily overestimate the impact of MediaCityUK. We are still about 60 miles away, so we can't just hop in a taxi and be there in half an hour. As a PR professional based in Bradford, I will continue to spend more time in London than Salford.
ZOE ENSOR - Director of consumer PR, Bell Pottinger North (offices in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds)
MediaCityUK is great news for Salford and the region as a whole. There will be more businesses to work for, more opportunities for our clients and hopefully a better understanding of businesses based in the North West.
When the journalists are based at MediaCityUK, this will present opportunities for some of our clients to get a greater share of voice.
Interviews on BBC Breakfast and Radio 5 Live will also be more palatable for our clients. Obviously media is valuable, but so is our clients' time. They are busy running businesses, so it is sometimes tricky to ask them to give up six or seven hours of their day to go to the BBC studios in London, for what could end up as a 40-second interview.
If your story is good enough and it meets the national news agenda, you will get coverage in national press. You don't need to be in their pockets.
RUSS BRADY - Head of group PR, The Co-Operative Group (headquartered in Manchester)
The creation of MediaCityUK has got to be positive for us from an editorial perspective. Practically, being based in the North West will help us with logistical issues that we have faced not being near White City.
I have never let people in my department use the fact we are based in Manchester as an excuse with our media relations. The media are mainly based in London, but there are also important outlets in other major regional centres in the UK.
I don't buy the idea that you can't break into the inner sanctum of the media who all go to wine bars after work with PROs. My contacts have grown up and have families and want to go home at night. How many journalists are really seeing PROs week in week out? Of course face-to-face contact is important, but Manchester is only two hours away from London.
Jobs: There will be up to 2,300 BBC roles in MediaCityUK including approximately 500 new vacancies.
Arrivals: Departments moving to MediaCityUK include BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Children's, parts of Future Media & Technology, BBC Learning and BBC Sport.
PR team: Comms staff will relocate to MediaCityUK to support BBC North corporate, BBC English Regions North Comms (covering news, current affairs and local and regional programming), BBC Vision and Religion and Ethics, Children's BBC, Radio 5 Live and BBC Sport.
May 2011: The first BBC staff relocate to MediaCityUK
July 2011: Radio 5 Live relocation begins
April 2012: BBC Breakfast, News to relocate.