ANALYSIS: Peace provides boon for PR scene in Belfast

The Good Friday Agreement created many opportunities for commercial PROs in Northern Ireland. From a small base, agencies are growing fast in the province, says Gidon Freeman.

Last week the Northern Ireland PR industry gathered in what could be seen as a milestone in the sector's development. The IPR conference 'The challenges facing PR in 2002', held in Newry, had a refreshing agenda. There was barely half an hour on the province's troubled past.

Instead, sessions on PR as a business resource, management through internal comms and the business case for communications marked a change from the PR world's attempt to confine Ulster PROs to a pigeonhole of sectarian or political interest.

Rosemary Allister, John Laird PR account handler and chairman of the IPR's Northern Ireland group, says the industry had shown signs of growth before the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), signed in May 1998, but the advent of peace had been a watershed.

PR developed late in the province. Andy Purcell, course director in PR and marketing at the University of Ulster, says the first dedicated PR firm - The Public Relations Company - did not open for trading until 1965, and because of the troubles had shut up shop by 1970.

By contrast, the sector is now growing at a rate capable of sustaining a degree course for 200 students. Next year's intake will need two As and a B at A-Level, qualifications capable of securing a place at medical school.

Industry sources estimate the size of the market at £20m to £30m. This is relatively small, and the market is also fragmented. There are under a dozen firms taking £1m of fees, and countless one-man bands or niche operators. The consolidation many expected during the past three years has not happened, leaving a market welcoming to new entrants.

Small and fragmented it may be, but it is on the rise. Ulster's is the fastest-growing regional economy in the UK. With Belfast town centre being widely relandscaped and rebuilt, unemployment is at a 25-year low and output is growing at ten times the UK's average rate.

Agencies are expanding to fit capacity. IPG's Weber Shandwick and Incepta's Citigate, run by local PR veteran Alan Burnside, are the two major global networks to have established a major (25-plus) presence in Belfast, along with a host of indigenous firms such as Drury Communications, Morrow Communications, Davidson Cockcroft, GCAS PR, Manley IMC and Future Image. A new generation of firms run by younger managers, Life Communications and Carmah among them, is now emerging.

One reason for this surge in business is that the deal to end the troubles created a raft of bodies needing advice.

Kieran Donnelly, a director at Morrow - which has 20 staff and clients such as ICL and Novell - explains: 'The GFA is starting to kick in with institutions that provide work. We do the (all Ireland) Food Safety Promotion Board, Drury does Intertrade Ireland, and there are many others,' he says.

Managing accounts across Ireland is a money-spinner and promises to be a boon on both sides of the border.

Despite the fact the two countries use different currencies, companies large in Dublin, such as Fleishman-Hillard, are able to cash in in the north.

But the most significant driver of sectoral growth is the confidence the GFA has brought.

And growth has been welcomed by local journalists, grateful to be able to write on mainstream issues and to be given the page space to do so in the absence of troubles news. In addition to the BBC regional station and ITV's Ulster TV, local corporate PROs see three print publications as crucial - The Irish News, the Newsletter and the Belfast Telegraph. With a business section every day bar Sunday, The Irish News is seen as a prime target.

The title's business editor Gary McDonald, who has spent one year working in PR, has spent 22 years observing the PR scene from a journalistic standpoint: 'For a long time PR here was seen as risk management because of the troubles, or blowing up balloons and giving freebies to journalists. The sector has taken a look at itself and realises it has a role in influencing the news agenda.'

In-house staff, too, enthuse about the opportunities afforded by the new dispensation. As inward investment mushrooms - witness recent developments by Fujitsu, Halifax and Abbey National - the local mood is upbeat.

Leanne Hyslop is PRO at transport operatorTranslink: 'It's vibrant. We have the feelgood factor as the Agreement is bearing fruit. Under the new institutions, for example, we have £80m to buy 23 new trains. PR is now needed to get punters back on trains.'

For now, the biggest PR operation in Ulster remains that of former BBC NI political editor Steven Grimason, whose 42 press officers run the Northern Ireland Executive's newsroom.

But with private sector operations growing and peace offering fresh opportunities for business to grow, that cannot last long.

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