FOCUS: NORTHERN IRELAND - Grass in Ireland is getting greener

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 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

20 staff.

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

cross-border support.

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

development corporation.

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,

somewhat ’parochialised’.

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

close knit.

’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

private sector.

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,

Future Image.

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

morning papers.

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

Radio/Cool FM.

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.

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