FOCUS: NORTHERN IRELAND - NI gets investors’ undivided attention/Following the instigation of the Irish peace process, PR has played a major role in attracting investment back to the northern province

PR practitioners in Northern Ireland have always had a tough job being heard above the violence and extremist politics. But the peace process is well under way, the Northern Ireland Assembly is on course, and there is a vital role for positive public relations to play.

PR practitioners in Northern Ireland have always had a tough job

being heard above the violence and extremist politics. But the peace

process is well under way, the Northern Ireland Assembly is on course,

and there is a vital role for positive public relations to play.

One of the major growth areas for PR in the region is in encouraging

inward investment, partly by helping to reposition Northern Ireland in

the eyes of the home and international media as a world class location

for major corporate, sporting and entertainment events.

’Northern Ireland is a brand, with positive and negative connotations,’

explains Peter Morrow, MD of Morrow Communications in Belfast. ’We can

build on the positive image by selling NI’s countryside environment, as

well as promoting it as an international venue. But organisers will have

to give that little bit extra, because people have become used to

hearing only negative publicity from Northern Ireland.’

Inward investment has been encouraged by the International Development

Board (IDB), and public and private investment has begun to pour into

Northern Ireland, helping to set up an infrastructure which will be able

to support high-profile events.

Of hotel establishments, the Hilton group established itself first,

followed by the Stakis, Radisson and Holiday Inn groups. And of the

major supermarket chains, Sainsbury’s opened three years ago, followed

by Tesco.

This increasing confidence in Northern Ireland has encouraged leading

investors’ competitors to look at the province. ’They create a ’me too’

climate,’ says Brenda Boal, MD of Shandwick in Ireland. ’There is no

doubt the peace process also accelerated the economy,’ she says.

A major construction project, co-funded by the Millennium Commission,

the Sports Council of Northern Ireland and other partners, is currently

under way which will put Northern Ireland on the world stage as a

serious contender for events.

The pounds 91 million Odyssey project will be Ireland’s biggest visitor

attraction, and is due to open in November 2000. It covers a 23-acre

site, including Ireland’s first indoor arena, which will seat 10,500. A

science centre, IMAX theatre and the Pavilion entertainment and retail

area are also being created.

A number of events which will confirm Northern Ireland’s potential are

already in the pipeline, hot on the heels of the State of the World

Forum which took place at the beginning of May with 1,000 delegates

including world political leaders and Nobel Laureates.

The Northern Ireland Events Company has been established by the

Department of the Environment, with a remit to target, for years ahead,

major sporting, social, artistic, and musical events. Its successes

include the NI Festival of Racing; and the British Seniors Golf

tournament, which has been held in Northern Ireland for the last five


’We have always hosted international events in the region, but the drive

to make sure we’re on the agenda is slowly becoming more co-ordinated,’

says Sheila Davidson, partner at Davidson Cockroft.

The Northern Ireland Millennium Company is housed in the same


’We are co-ordinating The Millennium Festival, which will run from 1

September 1999 to 1 January 2001,’ says Valerie Steele, deputy chief

executive of the company. Run in conjunction with Belfast City Council

and other bodies, it will include the World Irish Dancing Championships,

at the Belfast Waterfront Hall, and the European Powerboat


Other high-profile events on their way to the province include the World

Student Golf Championship in 1999, the World Boxing Championship in

2001, the Coca-Cola North-West 200 - Ireland’s largest road motorcycle

race held each May - and the World Triathlon, as well as horse racing,

power boat sailing, tall ships, and fishing events.

Local authorities have done a great deal to encourage investment and

promotion. Belfast City Council has just launched two initiatives to

help promote the area: Investment Belfast, a pounds 500,000

public-private partnership designed to attract inward investment and

business projects into the city; and, to promote tourism, the Belfast

Visitor and Convention Bureau, which will work with hoteliers and

guest-house owners to promote the city for conferences and


The city council alone is investing pounds 700,000 in the bureau which,

with other funds from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Belfast

Regeneration Office, and private investors, will go towards offices,

staff, literature and marketing.

Other local authorities have taken up the initiative. Coast of Down, a

consortium of four councils adjoining the Irish Sea along the County

Down coast, is handled by Burnside-Citigate.

Agency managing director Alan Burnside says: ’Many councils have

economic development committees and either their own tourist body or a

consortium with other councils.’

Derry council itself has also successfully promoted the area to the US

market by persuading luxury cruise ships to include the city on their


But despite these successes, public relations has had to work hard to

counter Northern Ireland’s historically negative image with a media

brought up on a heavy diet of negative political stories.

However, Lawrence Duffy, managing director of GCAS Public Relations,

believes the pendulum is starting to swing in the right direction. ’The

media coverage has generally been one-way traffic, and it’s been

difficult to counter,’ he says. ’An agency could organise an event and

then be pushed out of the news. That is starting to change.

’There will have to be a re-focusing from a media point of view, and

world events and local, non-political, events, will need to be given

more coverage,’ he adds.

Citigate’s Burnside agrees that the media has not been as quick to take

up pro-Northern Ireland stories as they might. ’For PR practitioners,

competing for coverage in the media is, I suspect, more difficult in the

province than in the rest of the UK,’ he says.

’To get coverage, stories need to have very strong news values. The

challenge for PR practitioners is to be creative, to understand the

media’s news values and to manage client expectation,’ he adds.

The new Northern Ireland Assembly will also have an effect on the work

of PR practitioners in Northern Ireland, as there will be more

opportunity for lobbying.

The Press Association is gearing up for the assembly with a full-time

political unit at Stormont. Deric Henderson, PA’s Ireland editor, says:

’Stormont is where PR people should be. There is a lot of work for good

PR companies to do and agencies can play an important role. PR people

should be kicking in now, but it must be asked whether they have come to

terms with what the new assembly will mean.’

John Laird, managing director of John Laird Public Relations, also

believes that PR will have a greater part to play in the new assembly.

’The lobbying and public affairs side of PR will increase, as it does

when responsibility is devolved to any regional centre,’ he


Several agencies have already responded to the new political structure

by opening Northern Ireland public affairs arms, including Shandwick and

Burnside-Citigate. Belfast-based Gordon Corporate Communications and

Westminster Strategy have even joined to launch a lobbying agency,

called Stormont Strategy (PR Week, 29 January).

The repositioning of Northern Ireland, a more stable economy, and a new

political framework will undoubtedly boost PR in the province, but it

still has some way to go to catch up with the Republic, where the

booming Celtic tiger has had a significant effect on the rise of PR, as

highlighted at the recent PR Week round table (4 June).

Morrow concludes: ’Accompanying the very positive political developments

is a growing recognition of the role which world class events can play

in creating a sense of normality, creating public excitement,

consolidating the peace, building expectations and creating positive

international headlines.’


Cross-border links between Northern Ireland and the Republic have been

in position for over a decade in some business sectors, but in others,

they have yet to be developed.

The CBI in Northern Ireland formed a joint business council with its

opposite number in the Republic, The Irish Business Employers’

Confederation (IBEC), in 1991. Northern Ireland CBI director Nigel Smyth

says: ’Sectors with potential for higher levels of co-operation include

the farming, food and software industries. Other areas, such as

chartered accountancy, already operate just one association in


In the Border counties, the two Chambers of Commerce work together

through Chamber Link.

Brenda Boal, MD of Shandwick in Ireland, says: ’The amount of

cross-border public relations activity is increasing as more big brands

take an all-Ireland view. We are currently working with Esso on an

Ireland-wide environmental project delivered to a schools audience,

while computer firm Compaq has been running an Ireland-wide annual

business award for three years.’

Alan Burnside, managing director of Burnside-Citigate, agrees. ’Whereas

in the past there would have been separate management teams and

companies in the North and the South, we have moved on to all-island

management teams,’ he says. ’This is beginning to have a knock-on effect

for service providers such as PR and advertising companies. But the two

markets remain quite distinctly different and no single strategy will

usually work North and South without some revision.’

Burnside also recognises that the political process is not moving as

swiftly as business might like. ’There is tremendous frustration here

about the lack of political progress because of the issue of the

decommissioning of arms. Many consultancies have geared up to advise

existing and hopefully new clients in dealing with a local

administration accountable to locally elected politicians. This looks as

if it will be ’parked’ now but clearly devolved government will open up

a whole new and exciting area of business for PR and communications

consultancies - eventually.’

Only Shandwick and Drury already have offices in both Belfast and

Dublin, but other agencies have formed cross-border links - Morrow

Communications in Belfast, for example, is linked to Park Communications

in Dublin - while some, such as Burnside-Citigate, work with

consultancies in the Republic on a project basis. Several also link with

agencies on the mainland.


In March, Belfast hosted the biggest cross-country event in the world -

the 1999 World Cross Country Championship, organised by the

International Amateur Athletics Federation.

It was undoubtedly the most significant international sporting event

ever to have been held in the province.

’The cross country event was beamed out live to nearly 50 countries.

Up to 150 other countries took video cuttings of between three and 15

minutes,’ says Eamonn McCartan, chief executive of the Sports Council

for Northern Ireland.

This publicity not only increased Belfast’s credibility as a sports

venue, but generated a positive image of the province to thousands of

people worldwide.

One Northern Ireland native living in Australia reported that it was

good to see ’people milling about together, doing positive things’.

This was the aim of both the IAAF, the athletics governing body, the

Northern Irish organisations involved and the event’s PR agency, Morrow

Communications of Belfast.

Agency managing director Peter Morrow says: ’At the championships held

in Durham in 1995, representatives from the Sports Council in Northern

Ireland personally approached the head of the IAAF, Dr Primo


He was impressed by the notion of bringing the event to the region and

recognised that it could be seen as a contribution to the peace


No bidding for the right to stage the event was held, and it was

automatically awarded to Belfast.

’We advised the client to view the championships as more than just a

sporting occasion,’ he adds. ’Our intention was to involve the widest

possible participation from the entire community, irrespective of their

interest in cross country running.

’It was a fantastic experience for an Northern Irish PR company to hold

a press conference attended by around 200 international journalists,

with not one mention of security or politics,’ he says.

In the run-up to the event, the following initiatives were


- Youth Sport Cross Country Challenge (involving 2,000 children)

- Mencap Fun Runs and City Centre Challenge

- Sports Hall Athletics Association - Children’s Friendship Games

- International sports coaching conference

- Exhibition of Cross Country memorabilia

- WXCC Opening Ceremony (involving children, and local community arts


The event was heralded as a success, and welcome in a province which

12,000 to 15,000 people leave at the weekend to watch English and

Scottish Premier League football on the mainland, spending an estimated

pounds 150 each.

’We have to attract our own people back,’ comments McCartan.

’This type of event helps elevate the public mood. Whatever happens here

helps change perception. We tend to have to go the extra mile because we

have to - we’re not Paris, Milan or one of the other glamour spots of

the world,’ Morrow explains.

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