Profile: Pat McParland - Pouring oil on troubled water

From the Northern Ireland Parades Commission to NI Water, Pat McParland loves a challenge, says Gemma O'Reilly.

Few domestic issues raise the ire of consumers quite as much as water charges. One year into his role leading the comms team at Northern Ireland Water, Pat McParland finds himself facing an intense level of pressure and scrutiny as he attempts to rebuild frayed public trust.

Much of this is the result of a deferral of water charges in Northern Ireland that turned into a huge comms challenge, thanks to what McParland calls 'concerted' opposition to the charges.

McParland does not seem the kind of person who shies away from a challenge, which might explain why he took on what is considered one of the toughest comms jobs in Northern Ireland. He has settled into his first in-house position, but the job does not allow much time for reflection.

'The level of public interest in what we do is phenomenal,' he explains. 'It makes front page news if things aren't working for us.'

NI Water became a government-owned company in April 2007. It is the sole provider of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland with more than 780,000 domestic, agricultural, commercial and business customers. The potential for controversy is never far away, particularly given the tendency for the public to frame any debate about water in terms of the company itself.

'Domestic water charges have come on to the agenda in a controversial way and there has been a concerted campaign across the board to oppose them,' explains McParland, who is attempting to ensure the debate about who pays should be held separately from conversations about NI Water. 'This argument has become associated with NI Water and our challenge is to build understanding and "decouple" NI Water from these issues.'

In the meantime, McParland is keen to present NI Water as a trusted company playing a valuable role in supplying water across the country: 'We have to build an understanding of what value we are giving to the people of Northern Ireland.'

He is eager to move the organisation away from mistakes it has made previously, and make it a more open and transparent body. One crisis he points to saw the organisation overcharge business customers. 'The irony was that the water company was actually the one to find the problem,' he adds. 'We didn't communicate as well as perhaps we now would.'

Accordingly, McParland has tried to deliberately move NI Water away from talking about problems after they have been sorted out, preferring to let the public know there is a problem and how it is being dealt with. According to research, the new approach appears to be working well. Eighty-two per cent of people now think the water body is doing a good job, compared with 45 per cent two years ago.

McParland attributes the goldfish-bowl nature of his job to the sensitive role water services play in Northern Ireland, where the population is largely rural: 'The sense of ownership the people have is more passionate than in the rest of the UK.'

It appears, though, that the 33-year- old enjoys overcoming obstacles - an attitude that becomes readily apparent if his previous role at Stakeholder Communications working for the highly controversial Northern Ireland Parades Commission, which has the power to ban parades in Northern Ireland, is taken into account.

'I joke that the Parades Commission was becoming too popular and that's why I left,' says McParland. 'It has done a brilliant job of taking the heat out of parades. I like being in difficult spots, and there's no spot more difficult than now at NI Water.'

McParland's flair for comms can perhaps be traced to growing up through the Troubles. 'Conflict and politics were part of everyday life. I was interested in why things were reported the way they were and how, when one person or party was better at explaining themselves, it had such a dramatic effect on how people perceived it.'

He initially considered a career in law because he 'liked the idea of being good at changing minds'. It is an apt description of much of his communications work now: 'I seem to have an aptitude for communications. People seem to listen to me.'

MCE PR founder Paul McErlean worked with McParland at Stakeholder for five years and says his passion for communications is tempered by conscience: 'He is deeply interested in making a difference to Northern Ireland. He is a concerned and capable citizen.'

McParland plays down industry speculation that he has political aspirations of his own. His thirst, he says, is for political issues rather than parties: 'And there's no bigger political issue than water.'

2008: Head of communications, Northern Ireland Water
2005: Director, Stakeholder Communications Group
2002: Client manager, DCL Media
2000: Client executive, Drury Communications (Dublin)


What was your biggest career break? Being lifted from business consultancy Arthur Andersen by Billy Murphy into one of Ireland's best PR agencies, despite the fact that I didn't have a minute's PR experience. I expect my CV was a good yarn at the time.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder? If you're not enjoying what you're doing and are prepared to go the extra mile, get out. If you're watching the clock, you're going nowhere. Also, be your own person - I've never promoted anyone who just told me what they thought I wanted to hear.

Have you had a notable mentor? Tom Kelly is one of Northern Ireland's best known PR men and I'm lucky to have had him mentoring me for many years. Also the late Sean Hollywood was a very big influence earlier in life.

What do you prize in new recruits? Brains, hard work and enthusiasm. And if they can laugh at themselves it makes life a lot easier too - no-one in this game can afford to take themselves too seriously.

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