Trying to get a clear picture of the state of PR in the north is
not as straightforward as one might think.
On the one hand, there are concerns that with the amount of national and
international business being won by consultancies in the region, there
won’t be enough consultants to deal with smaller, local accounts. On the
other hand, some are concerned that certain parts of the region are
Nigel Sarbutts, director of Harrison Cowley Leeds, claims there is still
room in the market for new consultancies. Sarbutts says that in the two
years since the agency opened its Leeds office (it has nine others
including Manchester, London and Bristol) none of its business, which
includes clients such as the National Lottery and Barclays Mortgages,
has actually been won from other agencies - it has all been ’virgin’
Sally Habergham is director of PR at Sinclair Mason, which handles
clients including Reebok, Harvey Nichols Leeds and is on the BT roster.
She believes that while agencies of a similar size to Sinclair Mason can
no longer service small local clients there are a lot of smaller
consultancies in the region which are willing to take on this
’Once you get to a certain level you can’t afford to take on accounts
under a certain amount. What this means is that there is still a lot of
business out there for smaller consultancies who will happily take on
these types of accounts,’ says Habergham.
Certainly PRCA membership is increasing, according to Brian Clark, PRCA
representative and founder of the Clark and Company consultancy. He
points out that several members, including his own consultancy, service
international clients, and that it is no longer just regional companies
which seek the expertise of northern agencies.
However, at least part pf the growth in the region can be attributed to
a greater recognition for the need for outside consultancy on the part
of local companies.
Nigel Keenlyside, founder of Keenlyside Associates says this is because
of the changing needs of clients, who are wanting more specialised PR
services, such as sponsorship management, as well as the changing nature
of, for example, family-owned businesses. Keenlyside says: ’Locally
based companies are now inclined to buy PR services externally, instead
of handling everything themselves.’
While most are reluctant to submit to regional comparisons - be it the
old Leeds versus Manchester, or the rest of Britain versus London debate
- one thing that several practitioners in the region pride themselves on
is a strong commitment to client services and good value for money.
Assuming that satisfied clients would remain loyal to their
consultancies, Director magazine carried out a survey, published in its
March 1998 issue.
The survey examined 122 members of the PRCA and a list of the top ten
agencies with the highest number of clients being retained for five
years or longer was published.
Of the top agencies, three were based in the North - two in Yorkshire
and one in Cheshire. The work ethic may be strong in North but the
region, like the rest of Britain, is still bedevilled by a skills
Sarbutts mentions the difficulty of finding good staff with three or
four years’ experience. He points out the danger to the industry of
having too many under-trained staff in the future, when the economy is
not so buoyant and less investment will be allocated to training.
However, while everyone acknowledges that training is desirable, and
certain consultancies, such as Harrison Cowley, have well-recognised
graduate and employee training schemes, many in the industry are
critical of the lack of commitment on the whole.
Richard Harrison, director of Greenwood Tighe PR, which has offices in
Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh, says that it is obvious that many PR
agencies aren’t making a commitment to training. ’You see so many
advertisements for agencies wanting PR people with one or two years’
experience and that just says to me they are not interested in
training,’ he says.
Wayne Halton, director at Newcastle-based consultancy Robson Brown
pleads guilty to cherry-picking staff in the past, rather than training
them up. ’This has allowed us to get where we are in a short space of
time,’ he says. ’However, we now recognise that we’ve got to do
The consultancy is now embarking on the Investors in People programme,
which focuses, among other things, on the importance of on-going
training at all levels.
Although difficulties finding good staff is an industry-wide problem,
one factor that is working in favour of the region is the increasing
ease of attracting staff to the area. Young professionals in many
different industries are being lured to the North, especially from
London, by the investment in cities like Manchester, and Leeds.
In Manchester the regeneration of the city centre is well documented,
however more recently, Leeds has also seen something of a
Harvey Nichols Leeds, which opened in October 1996 has provided a huge
boost - to morale, as much as the economy - and now, on average, one new
bar opens in the city every week.
Like Manchester, Leeds has seen much development of formerly run-down
canal-side areas, and it seems nearly every lifestyle magazine in the
country has run a feature on ’Cool Leeds’. Habergham admits that three
of Sinclair Mason’s recent recruits were lured away from London agencies
for these reasons.
Last month, Leeds Metropolitan University also launched the IPR
It is now one of only three centres in the country to offer the diploma,
and has a catchment area extending from Newcastle to Birmingham.
While encouraged by the development of PR training offered in the
region, many professionals are questioning the role of PR degrees. The
debate centres on whether or not a public relations degree should be
academic or vocational. But there is widespread agreement that these
educational developments are good for the industry and professionals are
conscious that they are able to have input into these evolving
So how is the trend towards specialisation - particularly in financial,
health and hi-tech PR - reflected in the region? While many are wary of
the pitfalls of specialisation, and keen to point out that fundamental
PR skills will be applicable to any industry, there is an acceptance
that clients are not willing to take the risk of appointing, for
example, a generalist agency to a hi-tech account.
And, with the growth of Leeds as a centre for professional services,
many have suggested that there is a market for financial PR specialists
in the region. According to the Leeds Financial Services Initiative, the
financial services sector has seen employment rise by 21 per cent
between 1991 and 1996, and now employs 60,000 people.
But as Jayne Hopton, account director of full-service agency 7, says:
’For investor relations you still need to be in the City to have
influence with the analysts.’ While others, such as Harrison, agree with
her on this point, there are agencies which have tackled this
One such agency is Citigate Leeds, founded in 1991 on the back of the
success of its Birmingham office. Director Shirley Whiting says they
have found that smaller and mid-capped companies in the region wanted
City services, without the expense of hiring a London financial PR firm.
She also says certain clients wanted more ’hand-holding’ to guide them
through the process of making public financial information and so being
able to visit their offices is an advantage.
Whiting says that the fact the Citigate is such a well-known presence in
the City of London means that the representatives from the Leeds office
receive a fair hearing in the capital. At the same time, Leeds-based
brokers appreciate being contacted by regional specialists.
Despite the strength of the financial market, it remains to be seen
whether further niche markets will develop over the next few years. What
is clear is that the region will continue to attract both local business
and international accounts. The closure of Siemens’ Tyneside factory due
to the Asian economic crisis, announced last week, will hopefully prove
an isolated incident in a story of positive growth.
MUTUAL BENEFITS: Newcastle Building Society fights back
Last month, the members of the Nationwide Building Society voted, for
the second year running, to keep the Nationwide a mutual society.
But with the trend over the last few years for building societies to
demutualise, societies such as the Newcastle Building Society are
preparing themselves should they become the next target of
’carpetbaggers’, hoping for a big, one-off windfall.
The Newcastle Building Society, which is the largest building society
based in the north-east of England has been running a campaign to
promote the benefits of mutuality. It believes that a mutual society can
offer the most benefits to its member-customers, as there is no conflict
between their needs and those of the shareholders.
However, as the Society is a customer service provider, it is also eager
to focus on its commitment to the communities in which it operates.
Alongside its PR team, Newcastle-based Robson Brown, it has been
organising a series of events focusing on local communities particularly
in the Society’s north-east heartland.
Education is one of the areas on which work is focused, as it is of
concern to many people. The Newcastle Building Society has developed a
programme of sponsored events and on-going projects in areas as varied
as sports and culture.
One of these on-going programmes is run in conjunction with the
Newcastle education department. It is a campaign called ’Geordie Sport’,
sponsored by the Newcastle Building Society and designed to raise the
standards of achievement in physical education in the city. It will
reach 37,000 children in the area.
Another example is ’Full House’, a four year programme designed by the
Folkworks charity and also sponsored by the Society.
The charity visits schools in the North teaching dance, song and music,
with emphasis on the rich traditions of the region. As well as the
cultural aspects, the project aims to achieve national curriculum
targets in a number of areas. It will eventually reach 4,000 pupils in
13 different education authorities.
But as well as strengthening its community relations, the Society is
publicising the bottom-line benefits of being part of a mutual
Last June, when interest rates were increased, the Newcastle Building
Society, along with the other mutuals, announced that their mortgage
repayment rates would remain the same.
The announcement received widespread, positive coverage, highlighting
the benefits of retaining mutual status, and positioning the Newcastle
alongside the other major mutuals.
CREATIVITY: Teaching what may not come naturally
It is commonly acknowledged that creativity is an important tool for
good public relations consultants. However, many contend that creativity
is an innate quality, and not a skill that can be taught.
One who begs to differ is Andy Green, owner of Wakefield-based Green
Public Relations and an expert on creativity in PR. For five years he
has been teaching courses in creativity, a task that has taken him
around the world, from San Francisco to Zimbabwe.
Green says that by defining creativity and highlighting the ways in
which it works, it is possible to help practitioners to understand and
improve their ability to innovate. The courses also aim to break down
some of the myths surrounding the creative process, and explain the
’mechanical’ element that goes into creative public relations.
The inspiration for offering creative training came from the frustration
Green experienced after being approached numerous times to come up with
some innovative solutions to public relations problems.
As a pioneer of creativity training in the UK, Green has devised his own
courses. The subject is virgin territory, with little prior research or
written material to work from. Green has therefore studied and analysed
his own creative solutions to problems he has encountered over his 18
years as a public relations professional.
While trainees are coached on how to improve their creative thinking,
the courses also emphasise the strategic role that it plays, and how it
can be applied to any aspect of a PR programme.
Too many people think its all about coming up with a good gimmick or a
creative photocall, but Green says that his approach to creativity can
also be applied to the research and evaluation process with benefits in
terms of benchmarking.
The creativity training has caught on so well that Green now offers a
variety of course, including Creative Away Days for in-house departments
and a Pitch Doctor for consultancies requiring additional input for
As public relations consultants take on a more varied role, Green
anticipates that there will be more demand for specialist skills, such
as the ones he teaches. Green can foresee other consultancies
repositioning themselves as creative consultants.
He says: ’While the price for writing a press release is going to come
down, those who can say to a client, ’We can provide added value to
improve your ability to change, and enable you to be seen as an
innovative operation’, could well be able to write their own cheque for
that kind of service.’