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
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
HARMONIOUS: PR LINKS BETWEEN NORTH AND SOUTH ARE GROWING
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.
BACK IN THE RUNNING: NI PLAYS HOST TO A GLOBAL SPORTS AUDIENCE
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
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.