Despite the political uncertainty in the Province, Northern Irish
agencies are benefiting from inward investment and an increasingly
international focus. Robert Gray reports
Despite the end of the IRA ceasefire and the political uncertainty this
has occasioned, the mood among PR practitioners in Northern Ireland is,
in the main, optimistic. Inward investment from multinational
corporations continues and the local economy has been growing faster
than that of the UK mainland.
’Business in general over here is quite buoyant,’ says Brian McKibbin,
director of public relations at Manley Communications and chairman of
IPR Northern Ireland region.
’The political situation is extremely depressing. But paradoxically the
economic situation is quite buoyant,’ adds Burnside-Citigate managing
director Alan Burnside.
With a population of only 1.5 million, the Province is too small to
sustain any large PR consultancies. Nevertheless, there is a clutch of
medium-sized, full service agencies - typically employing between 10 and
Shandwick Northern Ireland, Burnside-Citigate, John Laird PR, GCAS
Profile and Anderson Kenny are the best known.
But although the market is comparatively small, there has been plenty of
change during the past three years and competition among consultancies
has hotted up. A wave of mergers, acquisitions, start-ups and arrivals
from outside Ulster has put a new complexion on the consultancy
GCAS Profile was created in 1995 through the merger of two of Northern
Ireland’s leading consultancies - GCAS and Profile Practice.
London-based corporate and financial PR specialist Citigate, meanwhile,
acquired Alan Burnside Communications, renaming it
Last year regional agency Harrison Cowley came to the Province, setting
up an operation which is run by existing Belfast agency Davidson
Cockcroft Partnership. Agencies based south of the border have also
expanded into Northern Ireland.
Drury Communications, a Dublin-based independent belonging to the
Ludgate network, researched the Ulster market and - finding it to be
under-provisioned for corporate and financial communications consultants
- set up in Belfast two-and-a-half years ago. Fleishman-Hillard Saunders
has similarly expanded into the north out of Dublin.
’More and more we have found that investors into the Republic see
Northern Ireland as an important market,’ says Fleishman-Hillard
Saunders general manager Darlene McCormick. ’There are quite a few
agencies now looking cross-border, treating Ireland almost as one
market,’ adds McKibbin.
Geographically and culturally, as far as the growing band of
multi-nationals that operate on both sides of the border are concerned,
it makes sense to approach Ireland as a single territory. Consultancies,
ever eager to give clients what they want, have moved to offer
And although the Republic is a larger market with bigger agencies, it is
by no means a case of one-way traffic. GCAS Profile, for example, has
recently opened an office in Dublin while Morrow Communications - a
10-year-old Belfast consultancy with clients including Zeneca, Ulster
Bank and ICL - has initiated talks with a Dublin-based agency with a
view to establishing a joint venture.
’Strategically it’s vital for companies like ourselves to have an
all-Ireland base,’ says Morrow managing director Peter Morrow. ’And
Dublin will always be seen as the city in Ireland, and of course the
southern economy is booming at the moment.’
This trend towards cross-border work and the increasing sophistication
of clients in the Ulster market has led to a greater demand for
high-level, strategic counsel.
Shandwick Northern Ireland managing director Brenda Boal believes that
in the coming years there will be more consultancy mergers as PR
companies vie to offer better levels of service to clients. While John
Laird, whose consultancy celebrated its 21st birthday this year,
identifies PR as a ’senior management tool’ and of public affairs in
’PR has evolved in Northern Ireland from the 1970s - when many saw its
role as simply supporting advertising strategies - to a discipline in
its own right,’ says Northern Bank Group communications manager
corporate affairs Richard Lowden.
’Tangible evidence of this can be seen by the number of corporate
affairs or communications departments now in existence in larger
companies. In the 1980s their function was, broadly speaking, seen to
lie within the marketing department. But that is no longer the
BT Northern Ireland is, in PR terms, one of the most active companies in
the Province - in the top three, says its public relations manager
Marnie O’Neill. It has made a big commitment to Belfast, in particular
sponsoring the Waterfront Hall in its first season and planning to move
1,700 staff to a prestigious pounds 30 million building under
development on a city centre site regenerated by Laganside, the urban
O’Neill is diplomatic about in-house PR in the Province, but implies
that until recently it lacked sophistication.
’As firms are tending to link up with international companies they are
exploiting their vision a lot more,’ she says. ’At the same time the
newspapers and media here will no longer accept PR speak. They are more
assertive about what they’ll accept.’
BT has to be vigorous in its public relations because of the threat to
its business posed by telecommunications companies such as CableTel. But
arguably the largest driver of PR activity in the Province over the last
couple of years has been the so-called ’store wars’ started by the
aggressive entry into the market of British supermarket giants Tesco and
In the fight for sites, PR has played one of the leading roles.
Shandwick has been representing Sainsbury’s, Davidson Cockcroft has
acted for Tesco while John Laird and Burnside-Citigate have respectively
advised local supermarket groups Wellworths and Stewarts and Crazy
Prices. Tesco’s pounds 630 million acquisition this year of Stewarts and
Crazy Prices has, however, given it a competitive advantage and has
thrown into question the future of the account.
’The growth in Northern Ireland has been in the consumer sector, helped
by the arrival of more and more big brand high street names,’ says
Richard Gordon, a former managing director of Anderson Kenny who, a
little over two years ago set up his own consultancy Gordon PR, which
specialises in corporate and strategic work.
A current example of a high street brand’s arrival is the support Manley
Communications is giving to the launch of the Dunkin’ Donuts chain in
the Province. Brothers Gary and Neil White, holders of the master
franchise from Allied Domecq, intend to open 12 Dunkin’ Donuts stores
and 50 shop-in-shops.
Fleishman-Hillard Saunders also has clients bringing inward investment
to Ulster in the shape of FG Wilson Engineering (1,500 new jobs) and
Copeland Corporation (300 new jobs). ’The US investments into Northern
Ireland that we’re managing have not been affected by the political
situation,’ says McCormick.
The peace dividend persists even if the peace itself has not. And one of
the sectors to benefit from this curious state of affairs is
’There’s been significant investment in tourism and leisure in Northern
Ireland,’ says Boal. ’And that, I think, is poised for more growth.’
As well as setting up south of the border, GCAS Profile has also
expanded within Ulster. In October 1995 it opened a Londonderry office
due to demand from clients. Although it is the Province’s second city,
Londonderry is, says GCAS Profile managing director David McCavery,
Consequently, he argues, it is better to have an operation on the ground
As for Ulster as a whole, although there is no end to the troubles in
sight at least its economy is in fair shape. Employment grew by two per
cent in the final quarter of 1996 - the highest growth of any UK region
- while over the same period consumer prices were the most stable in the
UK. Added to overall economic growth last year estimated at 2.9 per
cent, that’s the sort of good news the Province deserves.
Recruitment: PR stars in their eyes
Recruitment in Northern Ireland can be problematic. There is no shortage
of talented graduates but finding good, experienced staff for senior
in-house or consultancy posts is considerably more difficult.
Salaries, for a start, aregenerally lower than on the mainland.
Moreover, the uncertainties of the post-ceasefire situation means very
few practitioners from Britain or the Republic of Ireland are tempted by
the prospect of working in Ulster.
’If anything we have good senior people and good junior people,’ says
Brian McKibbin, director of PR at Manley Communications and chairman of
IPR Northern Ireland region. ’But we may be a bit weak in the middle.’
’Where there are difficulties is getting people with five or more years
reasonable experience,’ adds John Laird.
A trickle of returning expatriates, who have gained communications
expertise overseas, has helped matters. But, nonetheless, the shortage
of what one might call ’middle-rankers’ is a cause for concern among the
heads of in-house departments and agencies.
The picture is rosier at entry level. The University of Ulster
(Jordanstown Campus) runs a highly-regarded, four-year CAM-approved
Communications, Advertising and Marketing course. Every year there are
nearly 2,000 applications for its 35 places. ’As an industry we have to
improve our attitude to graduates,’ says Andy Purcell, lecturer in PR
and advertising on the course and associate director of Anderson Kenny.
’Salaries are poor. Some graduates are starting at pounds 6,000 a
’It’s really an insult to students, which is why many are going into
industry to use their all-round skills. It’s a problem for the PR sector
in Northern Ireland but what I hope will happen is that students will go
and experience the scope of industry and then return to PR all the
better for it.’
The University of Ulster also offers a one-year masters degree in
Communication, Advertising and Public Relations, which attracts students
from around the world.
Beyond academia, job moves are often in response to personal approaches
rather than recruitment ads. The Northern Ireland PR community is quite
’This is a small place,’ says Davidson Cockcroft Partnership joint
managing director Gwynneth Cockcroft. ’People know who the good people
are, and people build their reputations very swiftly.’
Regeneration: Down by the river
Laganside Corporation was created in 1989 with a remit to regenerate
derelict sites along the river Lagan in Belfast city centre. The body,
which is funded by the Department of the Environment Northern Ireland,
has secured pounds 150 million of investment into Belfast from the
The most potent symbol of the city’s urban renewal is Belfast City
Council’s impressive Waterfront Hall auditorium, built on the Lanyon
Place development site. Also at Lanyon Place, work is under way on BT’s
12,000 sq metre regional headquarters and a 187-room, five-star Hilton
Hotel. ’It’s essential that the detail of what’s happening is relayed to
the public,’ says Laganside marketing manager Doug Garrett.
PR plays a vital role in this respect. And the urban development
corporation works very closely with its locally-based PR consultancy,
Through Future Image, Laganside has organised visits to Belfast for
national newspaper property correspondents and for the property trade
The corporation has also used events such as the Belfast Folk festival
and the visits of the Chinese State Circus in 1993 and 1996 as a means
of generating publicity for its development sites. A 1995 marketing trip
to Dublin, with a publicity event staged at the Westbury hotel,
unearthed a developer for its Mays Meadow site. Irish company Finnbrook
Investment signed up for a pounds 25 million scheme.
’The Dublin attitude that you don’t want to do business over the border
has changed dramatically,’ says Garrett.
The team at Laganside stresses the high educational standards and
stability of the Northern Ireland workforce. With the majority of sites
now complete or under development, the communications focus has shifted
away from securing developers to attracting end users to the city, which
has a population of around 350,000. One of the main objectives is a
widening of the economic base.
Laganside have been very much the darling of the press,’ says Future
Image managing director Rosemary Hamilton. ’What they’ve achieved looked
like pie in the sky ten years ago.
’We have a very busy press corps in Belfast. But because they have to
cover bad news so often they’re very interested when there is good
Case study: Art and the craft of encouraging sponsorship
In February and March 1997 Burnside-Citigate Communications worked on a
profile-raising and media relations campaign for its client the
Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts (ABSA) Northern
Ireland. The aim of the campaign was to promote the biennial ABSA
Northern Ireland Awards, which reward best practice and innovation by
business sponsors of the arts in Ulster.
One of the main objectives was to boost its prominence among local
businesses and arts correspondents. As well as securing recognition for
itself, ABSA wanted attention drawn to the Award sponsors - Bank of
Ireland and Ulster Carpets - and finalists.
To this end the decision was taken to involve business media as well as
arts writers. A media briefing was arranged at Bank of Ireland’s
premises (chosen to reinforce its sponsorship). The finalists were
announced and background information on the awards was distributed.
At the same time the Belfast Telegraph was given a photo exclusive of
works of art specially commissioned for the event. Information on the
finalists was sent out to the 50 weekly papers in Northern Ireland and
an exclusive photograph of a bronze award was placed on the cover of the
business section of the News Letter, one of Northern Ireland’s two
Ulster Business, the Province’s only glossy business magazine, was given
the full awards story under embargo, enabling it to run over four pages
of coverage in its March issue. Business correspondents were also given
information under embargo.
Design company Rodney Miller Associates came up with the theme of ’The
Owl and the Pussycat’ (to reflect the sometimes incongruous nature of
business linking with art) which ran as a theme through the awards
Local artists were commissioned to provide images, which featured in the
programme and were displayed at the venue, Belfast’s new Waterfront
Hall, in the days before the show.
Actor Ciaran Hinds recited Edward Lear’s nonsense poem at the event and
Prince Andrew presented the Awards amid tight security.
’I think Burnside-Citigate did a super job for us,’ says ABSA Northern
Ireland director Caroline Kieran. ’Even more so as it was on a pro bono
basis. It’s helped us increase our profile and given us a platform this
year to launch new campaigns, get new members and encourage
Substantial pieces ran in Northern Ireland’s three major dailies - Irish
News, News Letter and the evening Belfast Telegraph. Broadcast coverage
included GMTV, UTV, BBC Radio Ulster and independent station Downtown
Sadly, a bomb blast less than a mile from the venue during the awards
took some of the shine off the occasion and deflected some of the
reportage to questions of Royal security. No one ever said it was easy
doing PR in Northern Ireland.