FOCUS: NORTHERN IRELAND - Winds of change blow in the North. Big business is booming in Northern Ireland, but the arrival of the multinationals hasn’t meant sacrificing the distinctive provincial feel Sue Beenstock reports.

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 - regardless.

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

increase spend.

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

Ireland campaign.

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

into goodwill.

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.’

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