To those of us on the mainland, Northern Ireland may be synonymous
with ’The Troubles’ and latterly with ’The Peace Agreement’, but to
people lucky enough to be in PR in the province, it’s boom time -
’The peace talks don’t have much impact because here you become immune
to the political environment, and I’m saying that as someone who is
involved in politics personally. Most people stay away in business
terms, but know that this tremendous economy is driving the political
situation.’ That’s the verdict of Tom Kelly, managing director of Drury
Communications, based in Dublin and Belfast.
There’s no doubt the province is enjoying record levels of low
unemployment, manufacturing has risen 22 per cent in the last five years
and, according to a recent report, local companies expect investment to
rise by 77 per cent in the year to October.
The Industrial Development Board (IDB) boasts that the province has the
fastest-growing regional airport, massive investment by Tesco,
Sainsbury’s and Safeway, two major new hotels, as well as the opening
last May of Belfast’s pounds 32 million Waterfront concert hall, all
symptomatic of soaring confidence. It’s fitting then that McCann Media,
the PR firm which handles the IDB, has seen it’s own life history shaped
by Ulster’s recent economic history.
’We launched in 1993 at the beginning of the peace process,’ says MD
Maria McCann, ’and this year we’re probably the fourth biggest operator
in the province.’
’Although the peace talks have pushed every other news item off the
front pages, in one sense making our job more difficult, it’s also
allowed us to use that interest to spark stories on our economy, telecom
infrastructure and well-educated graduates,’ she says.
According to Andy Purcell, lecturer in PR at the University of Ulster,
the profession has taken its rightful place in this expanding
Purcell is an associate director of Anderson Kenney, which has enjoyed a
’phenomenal year’, according to director Orla McKibbin, who reports a 25
per cent increase in turnover. It has existing clients, like Marks and
Spencer and McDonald’s, both of which are opening new outlets, that are
contributing most to McKibbin’s figures.
As arguably the largest PR firm in the province, its structure is
perhaps indicative of the way others will follow - a five-discipline
group, covering advertising, marketing, research, design and internet
business, employing 90 people in total, of which 15 work in PR.
’Increasingly over the last year, we’ve seen clients take advantage of
the whole package,’ says McKibbin.
But Ulster, with a population of just 1.5 million, is still a provincial
place, says Northern Ireland’s Institute of Public Relations chairman,
Jane Wells. ’There are only about 40 consultancies here, so most of us
are jacks of all trades.’ However, she does see a trend to increased
sophistication, with more strategy work’.
GCAS Profile’s deputy MD Lawrence Duffy agrees there’s little scope for
specialist PRs: ’We began as a travel specialist with clients Stenaline
and Edinburgh Tourist Board, but there still isn’t the critical mass of
work like there is in Dublin or London.’ His company now spans
retailing, banking and government.
It was the arrival of the multinationals - Sainsbury’s, Tesco and
Safeway - that have had the biggest impact on PR in the last 12 months.
’It’s presented local PRs with planning issues, out of town shopping
issues ... things that are all new to us,’ says Wells, who is also an
account director at John Laird, the agency which handles Safeway.
’We had to have a client represented in this sector,’ says Wells, ’It’s
crucial because of its expected growth.’
’There are now three account handlers on the Safeway brief and
inevitably they’re locals, which makes us no different to any other
parochial area,’ says Wells’ boss, John Laird.
’And a spin-off of all the tragic political news in the north is that
the media is less cynical about good news. If we have good news about
new jobs, for example, we find the media very co-operative in pushing it
positively, none of that ’But how long will they last?’ you’d get from
the Dublin media,’ he says.
Tom Kelly of Drury Communications agrees that Northern Ireland is
culturally quite different from the south. ’You need a local accent and
a local face here, and that’s what we try and do for our clients,
encourage them to use local spokespeople who won’t be treated with that
residue of suspicion you get if an English or southern spokesperson
turns up at a press launch.’
That’s precisely the reason GCAS Profile has headquarters in Belfast,
plus offices in Derry and Dublin. ’Local faces and contacts are still
all-important here,’ says Lawrence Duffy. Business has increased at GCAS
by up to 20 per cent in the last 12 months as clients like Vauxhall,
Ulster Bank, Dunnes Stores and the Department of Training and Employment
It’s a similar story at Shandwick’s Belfast office, where Sainsbury’s
has helped boost business by 15-20 per cent in the last year. ’We faced
lots of resistance in the early days from Northern Ireland-based
multiples,’ admits managing director Brenda Boal. Other UK companies
have since, perhaps rather helpfully, bought out the indigenous stores,
eradicating one line of attack.
Purcell says that the impact of the multinationals on PR cannot be over
estimated. ’They’re already demanding greater evaluation and
But that means more professionalism and they’re prepared to pay for
But although the local emphasis makes for a parochial approach, there is
evidence that PR is at last being taken more seriously.
Communications firm CabelTel is investing pounds 600 million in the
province - the biggest ever single investment - and recently appointed
Ian Jeffers, a former director of Anderson Kenney, as its new managing
’It’s an important appointment, says CableTel’s marketing manager
Deirdre McAllister, ’because it indicates that in terms of positioning
and delivery, the role of the PR is crucial, it’s no longer just a
Higher wages and correspondingly higher demands on the profession will,
claims Purcell, lead to a flowering of local talent in the next two
And, should a Northern Irish assembly with executive powers become a
reality, the province may also see an increase in that central plank of
PR on the mainland, lobbying.
Lawrence Duffy of GCAS Profile is looking forward to that day, but with
the fortitude of many of his colleagues in the province adds, ’we’re not
relying on it’.
TOURISM: Influencing the influencers
Persuading people to visit a place which is too often identified with
conflict, bombs and murders is no easy PR assignment. But the Northern
Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) does at least know there is enormous
potential for success.
At present, Northern Ireland earns only two per cent of its GDP from
tourism, compared to six per cent in the rest of Great Britain. When
violence dwindles, however, tourist numbers rise.
The NITB aims to attract more visitors and to increase the revenue they
generate, says press and PR manager Mo Durkan. Most staff work at its
main office in Belfast but a few look after smaller bureaux in Britain,
the Republic of Ireland, Germany and North America.
The Tourist Board produces tourist literature and sponsors events, but
also uses less direct means to attract tourists. Convincing tour
operators of Northern Ireland’s virtues is vital, because many people
use their brochures when choosing a holiday destination, says
NITB staff therefore attend travel trade shows and organise
’familiarisation’ trips for important tour operators in the rest of the
UK, Europe and North America. Trips help change their often negative
images of Northern Ireland, says Durkan.
Journalists’ visits are also encouraged and sometimes funded by the
Tourist Board. It uses London-based PR agency BGB and Associates,
Dublin-based Drury Communications and individual consultants in New York
and Sydney to drum up media interest in trips, and its own offices then
organise the details.
As for advertising, NITB and its Republic of Ireland counterpart
launched a joint, three-year campaign in November 1996. NITB is
investing pounds 500,000 over three years on creative work for the Brand
The campaign grew out of research showing that potential visitors wanted
information about the whole of Ireland, not just one part of it, says
Durkan. It is running in France, Germany, the US and Britain, and
involves print and broadcast ads which enable readers and viewers to
request a pack of information about Ireland. More than 100,000 people
have done so.
Durkan regards Tourism Brand Ireland as one of NITB’s notable
Another, she adds, is the arrival in Belfast of internationally-known
hotel brands such as Hilton and Stakis, partly in response to NITB
subsidies for hotel development. Tour operators want known hotel brands
and large numbers of rooms in one place, so the Hilton and Stakis should
get Northern Ireland into more brochures. That, in turn, should bring in
more tourists. - Rachael Baird.
QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY: Investing in business
With a booming economy leading to an increase in demand for well-trained
staff in disciplines such as public relations and higher salaries for
graduates, it is no surprise that business courses in Northern Ireland
are currently over-subscribed.
When Queen’s University, one of the pre-eminent universities in the
country, decided to launch its new business school, Drury
Communications’ Belfast office was appointed to handle the marketing and
public relations, working with the university’s information office.
The Queen’s School of Business was partly an amalgamation of existing
schools, but also offered a completely new degree course in management
for undergraduates, as well as a new Masters of Business Administration
course. It was launched in July 1996, with the first students beginning
their studies in September last year.
The first task Drury undertook was to attract an endowment. This was
secured in November 1996, from Martin Naughton, founder of electrical
manufacturing company Glen Dimplex and one of Ireland’s most successful
businessmen, and is known as the Martin Naughton Chair of Business
Vice-chancellor Sir Gordon Beveridge said: The new professor ... will
play a vital role in the school’s objective of developing even closer
partnerships with those in the world of business.’
Drury Communications’ brief included developing a marketing strategy to
promote the new MBA that the school is offering. Previously, the only
MBA offered in Northern Ireland was a conversion course - this was the
first professional development course offered to those who were already
successful in management and wanted to further their careers.
It was important that Drury Communications find companies that could
provide sponsorship and students - most people complete the course with
backing from their employer - as well as marketing the course to the
students themselves. This included advising on promotional
Part of the problem was that Queen’s has an excellent reputation in more
traditional disciplines, but didn’t have a name as a business
Director of the school, Professor Michael Moore, says: ’The launch of
the new chair and MBA demonstrates our determination to be at the
forefront of business learning in the province.’
Drury’s work for the Queen’s School of Management has been highly
successful, with the MBA being over-subscribed in its first year. The
Institute of Directors had formerly run its courses solely in
conjunction with the Ulster Business School. This year, however, it is
running an IT for Directors course with the Queen’s School of
Management. - Jennifer Whitehead.
SUPERMARKET SWEEP: Giving multinationals a local flavour
The relationship between Belfast-based PR firm Davidson Cockcroft and
its largest client Tesco, may illustrate some of the industry
differences between Northern Ireland and the mainland.
’To all intents and purposes, we’re considered an in-house team,’ says
co-partner Gwynneth Cockcroft, who spends 85 per cent of her time on the
Tesco account, and the remainder on Camelot.
With no in-house PR facility in the north, Tesco relies on Davidson
Cockcroft for every activity, from its Computers for Schools campaign,
to corporate work, sponsorship, marketing, store refits and openings.
And since the multinational supermarkets came to the province three
years ago Tesco, along with Safeway and Sainsbury’s, has needed all the
PR support it can muster.
Unlike Sainsbury’s, which built its own new stores, Tesco bought an
existing chain of supermarkets in the north, Stewarts, which it acquired
for pounds 630 million in May 1997.
Virtually overnight it made the store the second biggest employer in the
north, with 34 shops and 6,700 staff.
Cockcroft had been preparing the ground for two-and-a-half years and
much of that work was what she calls, ’building a profile and creating a
good neighbour policy’ so that in a series of meetings with locals,
community groups and retailers, antipathy to the food giant was turned
The good news on the jobs front - 1,200 new posts and a new distribution
depot in Armagh - made for some easy positive headlines.
’There’s less cynicism here about these jobs which might be seen with
more scepticism in the south or in England,’ confesses Cockcroft. As
with other multinationals, there were fears that Tesco would not stock
sufficient locally-sourced produce or that it would ignore indigenous
brands. There is now a regional office dedicated to working with local
Tesco relies on Cockcroft to ensure that events and promotions have a
local flavour - for example, celebrating Halloween, but not Guy Fawke’s
night. In these instances, Cockcroft keeps the UK head office
up-to-date, but on other campaigns however, Cockcroft looks to it for
advice: while Computers for Schools has been running in Britain for
seven years, it was the first time for Northern Ireland. ’There’s a well
trodden path, we just watered it down slightly,’ says Cockcroft.
’It was the same campaign, running from February to April but with less
in-store promotional work. With all the changes going on for the former
Stewarts’ staff, we really didn’t want to be disrupting things any more
than we already were.’