The Midlands is in good shape. Confidence is growing, business is
buoyant, and the cracks that appeared in the economy at the end of the
recession are no longer visible. The Midlands - the region defined by
the IPR as stretchi ng from Birmingham to Northampton to Milton Keynes -
is enjoying a cultural and economic renaissance. The challenge for
Midlands PR practitioners is to communicate this fight-back to a wider
The Midlands’ major city, Birmingham, has particular reason to
’Birmingham is mobilising itself for 1998 - the most significant,
headline-grabbing year in its history as it plays host to the G8 summit,
the Lions International Convention and the Eurovision Song Contest,’
says Fred Bromwich, Midlands Group IPR chairman. ’It will also be the
year when a lot more people outside the region will wake up to the fact
that the city’s PR industry is also a player in the international
An organisation that is already directing its PR towards the
international stage is Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. It puts
on more than 170 shows and events and attracts more than four million
people to the city each year. The remit for Elizabeth Clifford, who
heads a five-strong media and external relations team, covers local,
regional, national and international PR.
Birmingham-based David Clarke Associates - which is part of the Edelman
network and therefore has access to international resources - does work
for the NEC’s exhibition division. For national work, Clifford has hired
Key Communications with a brief to upgrade the profile of Birmingham in
the national broadsheet press.
’There has been a lot of investment in the city in the public and
private sector and we now need to re-establish our identity and reflect
what is now reality,’ says Clifford. ’We have to make sure the press
doesn’t bring out old pictures of the Bull Ring and Spaghetti Junction
because that’s not what it’s about any more.’
What it is currently about is proactive and positive PR for the
Birmingham-based Willoughby Public Relations is co-ordinating a campaign
for the CBI, which has the backing of 30 commercial companies in the
area, to change the general perception of the West Midlands and to
attract future investment to the region.
The agency’s managing director Julia Willoughby says that the high
percentage of national and international campaigns coming out of the
region is a reflection of its manufacturing base. 28 per cent of the
region is employed in manufacturing, particularly in the automotive
industry, with companies such as Rover, Peugeot and Jaguar
havingfactories in the region.
’As manufacturing companies need to compete on the world market, they
need PR to support that with more international and European campaigns,’
This is good news for the local PR market, and many agencies, especially
in the Birmingham area - Seal PR, Key Communications, Barkers - boast a
high number of national accounts in their portfolios.
Dianne Page, managing director at Barkers in Birmingham says: ’Most of
our clients are not based in the West Midlands and we work for national
brands. We are not second division teams because we choose not to live
But Seal PR’s managing director Steve Dann, admits that often ’Midlands
consultancies have to work harder to convince London-based companies to
come out of London’.
However, not all regionally-based consultancies are fighting to win
London business. Charles Mulraine, managing director of Leamington
Spa-based consultancy PRA Communications, says that he prefers to work
with Midlands-based businesses. The agency has clients in the
manufacturing, engineering and professional services industries.
’Clients realise the benefit of having advice close to headquarters,’ he
Michael Ryan Communications, which specialises in marketing services
accounts, even chose to relocate to Northamptonshire because it was
central and therefore convenient to reach its client base which spreads
across the UK.
The benefit of having contacts with the local market is key to major
companies based in the region, which are particularly proactive in terms
of community PR.
Birmingham-based Cadbury, for example, is a nationally-known brand and
uses Charles Barker in London for its branding and corporate PR. But it
also uses Smart Communications in Solihull to handle its local community
’We have a reputation as an important player in the local community and
the local PR role is to highlight the continuing commitment to the
community,’ says Cadbury’s media relations manager Tony Bilsborough.
Cadbury has a small in-house PR team and therefore outsources most of
its PR on a local and national level. This is not the case for another
national brand based in the Midlands: Boots the Chemist in
It has a 32-strong in-house consumer PR team led by director of PR Jayne
Mayled who oversees the consumer PR for 55,000 products and recently
brought the PR for cosmetic brands No7 and 17 in-house. She oversees PR
on a number of levels, from national branding work to cause related PR -
such as the breast cancer awareness month.
Many companies do not have the luxury of a large in-house team, and have
to outsource their PR. But there is no lack of choice - particularly
those seeking a smallish consultancy. What is typical of the region -
especially the East Midlands - is the plethora of small and medium-sized
PR agencies and a generous peppering of one and two-person owner-managed
The national PR brands established in the region include Harrison Cowley
and Citigate in Birmingham and Grayling in Birmingham and
While other home-grown players include Audax Communications and Gemini
PR in Nottingham, Rock Kitchen Harris in Leicester, and Paskett PR in
With so many different small and medium players, there has been a
tendency to specialise into niche sectors. Michael Ryan Communications
in Northampton, for example, specialises in marketing services, TMP PR
in Leicestershire positions itself as a fashion specialist, Willoughby
PR has expertise in home and property as well as consumer accounts,
while financial PR remains the niche market for Citigate in
’Many of the larger agencies in Birmingham are also niche players,
having developed their own expertise, whether it is consumer, retail,
food and drink or business-to-business,’ says Bromwich.
However, most PR consultancies in the region say that there is a
buoyancy in the market to the point where there is often more work than
they can handle. The only blot on the landscape is finding the right
staff. Many agencies point to the shortage of trained account handlers.
PRA’s Mulraine and Belinda Thompson, account director at Grayling in
Nottingham, both say that there is a dearth of middle managers - account
managers as opposed to those at junior or director level.
The Reputation Managers in Milton Keynes, in the south Midlands, has not
faced this problem, however. ’A recent development is the movement of
senior PR professionals out of London in search of a better quality of
life,’ says Jonathan Hemus, director at TRM. ’In the last six months
three consultants with extensive experience of London’s biggest PR
agencies have joined us, rather than continue their careers in ’the
Mayled at Boots says she has no problem in recruiting to her team, but
she is also proactive in her approach and aims to dispel some of the
myths about working outside of London. She is thinking about holding an
open day in London to meet potential recruits because, she says,
’sometimes people don’t know what PR outside London might mean’.
CASE STUDY: BEATING THE BLUES IN BIRMINGHAM
It’s booming, bustling, brash and home of the Balti. But has anyone
noticed that Birmingham is becoming ever so slightly fashionable?
Sam Warnock, PR director at Birmingham Marketing Partnership, is in
charge of promoting this image. Since BMP was founded in 1993, Warnock
and his team have led a marketing campaign for the city aimed at
improving its image as a business and leisure centre, to both national
and international audiences.
BMP’s role is to create ’one voice’ for promoting Birmingham as a
conference and exhibition centre, as an industrial location for national
and overseas investors, and as a tourism, leisure, and shopping
If BMP speaks with ’one voice’, it must account for itself to a number
of different masters. Birmingham City Council funds just under a third
of its pounds 3.3 million annual budget - with other contributions
coming from European grants, regional development boards, and commercial
But BMP also relies heavily for funding and logistical support on the
Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and other private business organisations
to help push Birmingham’s corporate image to target audiences. This has
allowed BMP to run an aggressive campaign of attracting visits from
overseas and national press, potential investors and key decision makers
involved in deciding where to locate prestigious events and
BMP admits that some people’s views of Birmingham remain shaped more by
fleeting industrial vistas from the M6 rather than the canal-side
brasseries and performances of Simon Rattle’s symphony orchestra.
But as former PR manager for Glasgow’s ’City of Culture’ project,
Warnock has learnt a thing or two about marketing the upbeat side of old
industrial cities, apparently in decline.
’We organise around 70 press visits a year,’ says Warnock. ’And the
hardest part is initially convincing the press to come from New York,
Paris, Manchester or London. But once they are here, the city sells
itself,’ he claims.
And if perceptions of Birmingham are changing, Warnock can thank a wave
of recent city development which has managed to complement rather than
obliterate a historic landscape routed in the Industrial Revolution and
BMP’s task now is to take advantage of marketing opportunities arising
from Birmingham playing host to next year’s G8 economic summit and the
Eurovision Song Contest. BMP is working withthe Foreign and Commonwealth
Office to ensure the smooth running of the G8 event.
’We are expecting an influx of 7,000 people into the city for that, and
I’m hoping to get Bill Clinton playing his saxophone at Ronnie Scott’s
at some point - stranger things have happened!’ he says.
A week later, the Eurovision Song Contest arrives in town. ’One of the
reasons that Birmingham landed the G8 and Eurovision was that we showed
that we could pull all our different organisations together, and offer a
one-stop-shop,’ says Warnock.
’We have already started work with the BBC about how we will handle the
event. It’s the sort of publicity, alongside hosting the G8 summit,
which we could not hope to buy.’
CASE STUDY: NATIONAL GRID PILES ON THE COMMUNITY SPIRIT
Nobody really wants to live next door to electricity sub-stations or in
the shadow of electricity pylons.
But since last year Coventry-based National Grid Company has been
working with Birmingham PR agency Barkers on a ’cold sell’ community
relations programme to overcome potential hostility among those
immediately affected by the National Grid’s infrastructure.
According to Clive Hawkins, community relations manager at National
Grid: ’When we have to do work, we want people to understand what it’s
about, appreciate the need for the work, and know who to get in touch
with if there’s a problem,’ says Hawkins.
One key element of the campaign has been the sponsorship of a ’Working
Countryside’ exhibition aimed at the rural community.
The show, based around exhibits from the Shropshire County Museum,
illustrates farming life prior to the creation of the National Grid in
Ian Bates, account handler at Barkers, says opening nights on the
exhibition’s tour were used to invite key landowners, councillors and
other regional decision makers to informally meet National Grid
executives. The exhibition also won extensive coverage from local
’The events helped get across to decision-makers the benefits that the
network provides. If you have pylons on someone else’s property, it’s
important that you build relationships and an acceptance that the pylons
are there,’ says Bates.
The client and agency have also been working hard to improve public
acceptance of its urban sub-station network.
One crucial threat to the effectiveness of the campaign receded in
September when legal actions against the National Grid and regional
generating companies was dropped, after new research revealed no link
between overhead cabling close to housing and leukaemia.
However, the potential for ’not-in-my-backyard’ arguments against urban
grid infrastructure remains.
Hence Barkers has run two sub-station ’community forums’ in the Midlands
and North West region, which combine barbecues, entertainment and
station tours for local residents to achieve a feel-good factor.
Over 180 invitations out of 200 were accepted to one of the open days
arranged by Barkers. Positive feedback from the initial pilot prompted
National Grid to roll out its open day programme, with a total of eight
held this year across the Grid’s six transmission regions.
According to Hawkins: ’People may have been living around our
sub-stations for 20 or 30 years, but these informal open days were the
first opportunities for these people to see inside and put questions to
National Grid staff.’