The PR industry in Scotland is asserting its independence and
preparing for a devolved parliament with the emergence of a clutch of
specialist agencies. Rebecca Dowman reports.
Scotland, and its unique national character, is big news. Hollywood has
given us Braveheart, the Stone of Scone has been piped home to Edinburgh
Castle and, earlier this month, the fate of a devolved Scottish
parliament caused a high-profile spat between John Major and his health
minister Stephen Dorrell.
Likewise, in key sectors, Scottish public affairs is also asserting its
autonomy from London. Pre-empting the possible creation of a Scottish
parliament, specialist PR firms are emerging and industry bodies are
Scotland still may not have one PR agency in the Top 50 league of
earners - Barkers Scotland is at 51 - but its PR army is in combative
Tony Meehan, chairman of the Scottish PRCA, asserts that business is
’extremely buoyant’. He says the 20 to 40 per cent continuous growth his
agency, TMA Communications, has seen over recent years is not unusual
among his peers: a confidence reflected somewhat in the latest CBI
Scotland survey, which sees business optimism rising for the third
Ken McEwen, founder of the Aberdeen-based PR Partnership, whose clients
include Calor Gas Scotland and accountants Kidson Impey, is also
’There is no doubt that business is good,’ says McEwen. ’People seem to
be looking to 1997 with a considerable degree of confidence, both in
terms of PR and in other areas such as property.’
But financial success is, of course, relative. Most commentators agree
that, although the major Scottish agencies are charging similar fees to
each other, these are far below London rates - as much as 50 per cent,
according to Tony Meehan. However, happily for staff, several agency
chiefs reckon that salaries are equivalent to London rates.
Cameron Walker, chairman of the IPR in Scotland, reports that the
region’s group is thriving. Walker, Safeway’s public affairs manager in
Scotland, estimates that the current membership of 324, with 35
applications outstanding, is at least a quarter up on three years ago.
He also says that the in-house to consultant membership ratio has evened
out from about 20/80 a few years ago to around 40/60.
’For in-house people, meetings used to feel a little like Custer at the
Little Big Horn,’ he recalls. ’With too many consultants trying to do
business with the in-house folk.’
Walker puts this increase in in-house members partly down to efforts to
make the group’s programme less consultancy-based, with forthcoming
meetings covering general topics such as stress management and
intellectual property. The group has also recently begun to forge
stronger links with the IPR’s City and Finance group.
However, Walker says the low number of in-house members does reflect the
relative scarcity of Scotland-based in-house PR professionals: indeed
his July appointment at Safeway followed the creation of a new position
and there are no equivalent posts at rivals Tesco and Sainsbury.
Walker does, however, predict a beefing up of the sector. He says such
expansion would occur particularly if a Scottish parliament is created
when, he says, companies will increasingly demand in-house experts for
Scottish agencies say they still suffer from condescension from English
operators, perhaps through ignorance of their capabilities: most
Scottish agencies say they rarely come up against English agencies while
Illustrating this attitude, Ken McEwen recalls a southern consultant’s
surprise that he had managed to get from Aberdeen to London in time for
a morning meeting. ’People have a perception that you have to put on the
sleighs and set out a month early,’ he remarks.
Ironically, some agencies north of Glasgow and Edinburgh believe they
are treated in a similarly dismissive way by clients and agencies from
Scotland’s central belt.
However PR veterans like Tony Meehan, whose company this month
celebrated its 21st anniversary and whose clients include McDonald’s
Restaurants and the Burton Group, stress that Scottish PR is becoming
’In the last two decades there have been important improvements in a
number of key areas,’ says Meehan. ’Namely in the professional standards
and abilities of practitioners, in the professional attitudes and
expectations of clients, in technology, in the clients’ reasons for
using PR and in the awareness of the media in the role of PR. This
applies to both in-house and consultancy PR.’
While the southern PR scene is becoming increasingly specialist, the
majority of Scottish agencies tend to be generalist. In some cases this
makes historical sense. Financial PR, for example, is inevitably based
in the City of London, while lobbying agencies are centred on
Clients have therefore used separate agencies for needs not met by
Scottish firms, or agencies with London affiliations or offices.
However, Safeway’s Walker expresses surprise that opportunistic
specialist agencies have not been set up.
’In my own area, food retailing, we are always trying to show the point
of difference between ourselves and our competitors: I would like to see
more of what distinguishes agency A from agency B.
’In terms of the Scottish economy, the food industry annually
contributes pounds 4 billion. I would have thought that specialist PR
agencies would have sprung up around that size of industry but I can’t
think of any.’
Glasgow hi-tech and business-to-business agency Scribe Marketing and
Communications is one of the few specialist Scottish firms. Since it was
established three years ago, Scribe has capitalised on the
fast-developing Scottish software market, with one of its recent
signings being the Scottish Software Federation.
Scribe founder Lara Bayley, this year’s winner of the IPR over-25 Young
Communicator Award, believes there are no other hi-tech specialists in
Scotland and says that its hi-tech pitches are often fought out against
major consumer consultancies or London hi-tech agencies. She adds that,
outside the consumer arena, PR is still foreign to many Scottish IT
’In traditional companies, it is a new idea,’ she explains. ’When we go
in to a company, we are often not pitching for an established budget but
trying to engineer a budget from scratch,’ she says.
’Companies need to be convinced of PR’s effectiveness and how it will
give a return on their investment. There is no room for fuzziness. We
are like missionaries saying: ’Go on, try it. It’s good.’’
As well as differing in their own format, southern and Scottish PR
agencies are dealing with a very different external environment.
Scotland has its own print media, legal system, educational framework,
local government structure and, after the election, may well have its
According to insiders, the Scottish PR scene also has a more civilised
tempo. Flora Martin, managing director of Citigate Scotland, whose
clients include Asda and the Bank of Scotland, says her staff work
shorter hours than Londoners, as ’people should have time for a home
life’, while Ken McEwen says that ’people still do business on a
gentleman’s understanding and on the shake of a hand’.
The need for key staff to understand such fundamental differences no
doubt goes some way to explain why English-based agencies moving into
Scotland appoint local bosses: Flora Martin, for example, remained at
the helm when her agency, Flora Martin PR, was merged into Citigate
Scotland last year, while public affairs group GPC Market Access chose
to head up its new Scottish office with an Edinburgh local government
manager, Jane Saren.
There is, however, a telling aspect in which Scottish and southern firms
are united. According to Tony Meehan, the fundamental challenge facing
the region’s PR practitioners is attracting, and retaining, high quality
Public affairs: Planning for parliamentary progress
The next election will decide not only if Scotland is to finally get a
prime minister with the same political complexion as the majority of its
MPs, but also whether it will, at last, get its own parliament.
Labour is committed to establishing a 129-member parliament in the first
year of a new Labourgovernment and - as was shown by John Major’s
rejection of Stephen Dorrell’s suggestion that it could be subsequently
abolished - the forum would be for keeps.
This prospect promises major opportunities for public affairs
practitioners in Scotland.
In the last six months, two public affairs consultancies have been
established to feed off such promise: Strategy in Scotland, a subsidiary
of London-based Westminster Strategy, which is headed by Robbie MacDuff,
ex-managing director of Ian Greer’s former Scottish operation SEIGA, and
GPC Market Access Scotland, part of GPC Market Access Group.
Both agencies stress their value in preparing clients for a potential
parliament. In its launch material, GPC Market Access Scotland flagged
up a research service into the possible effects of a Scottish parliament
on clients’ activities. Westminster Strategy director James Gray says
that SIS will provide clients: ’ influence in shaping the legislation
which will set up the parliament and some influence within the
parliament itself.’ Despite the business boost of a future Scottish
parliament, both Gray and Jane Saren, managing director of GPC Market
Access Scotland, say they already have clients and insist thatthe market
holds potential even without a parliament.
The newcomers are among the first rivals encountered by PS Public
Affairs Consultants, which was set up in Edinburgh in 1993 and opened
offices in Brussels and Northern Ireland two years later. The firm, part
of the PS/Bowman Network communications group, has around seven Scottish
Eric Young, a group director, says that, as PSPAC has good relations
with all four political parties and has established a good base,
particularly in local government, he is confident it can withstand the
Scottish and Westminster, the joint venture between Westminster
Communications and Citigate, is currently dormant. WC bought out
Citigate last year and is planning to open a new officein Edinburgh
later this year. In the meantime it is servicing its Scottish clients
Wryly admitting to being slightly perturbed by the opportunistic
invaders, he asserts that ’competition keeps you healthy’. If a
parliament does come to Scotland, competition can only get stiffer.
Edinburgh: Maintaining festival freshness
In many ways Edinburgh stands as a model of everything that an arts
festival should try to be and do’ said the Daily Telegraph last summer -
a sentiment reiterated throughout the quality press as the international
festival notched up its highest ever media coverage.
However, as Edinburgh International Festival’s marketing and public
affairs director Joanna Baker will testify, such enviable coverage does
not come without some effort.
Baker, who has been in post for five years, says that to continue
receiving such approbation, the festival must always strive to balance
established favourites with ground-breaking new acts. ’The important
thing’ she says, ’is to generate enough confidence in what you do that
people want to see performers that they have not seen before.’
To raise awareness of lesser-known acts, and get coverage outside the
three weeks of performance, the festival arranges around a dozen foreign
press trips each year to allow journalists to preview performers. These
are on a quid pro quo basis, with journalists pledging to write
pre-festival pieces. A limited marketing budget means such foreign trips
are generally paid for with sponsors’ assistance.
Twenty per cent of the festival audience is from overseas and, mindful
of the importance of the media in bringing in ticket sales, Baker’s team
systematically approaches foreign coverage. The breakdown of visiting
journalists is assessed and where countries are under-represented press
contacts are updated, with the help of the British Council or the
British Tourist Authority, and key journalists targeted.
Edinburgh is of potential appeal to both arts and news journalists and,
as an angle of general interest, the festival capitalises on its
Last year it made great play of its 50th anniversary and this year, with
a much-reduced emphasis, is flagging up its 50th birthday.
Although Baker stresses the importance of moving forward, such heritage
is likely to remain a major festival selling point.
’I can anticipate huge changes in the type of work we do, such as the
use of new media, projectors, sound and computer imagery’ she says.
’However, the festival is separate and special. There is nothing in the
world like Edinburgh and you tamper with it at your peril.’
Glasgow: Setting the architectural agenda
If it was the billions of pounds of regeneration that actually made
Glasgow infinitely more than a recession-hit backwater it was, arguably,
the ’Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign that first made people believe it.
Now, 14 years after that campaign was launched, Sarah Gaventa has the
job of making the city itself, and the wider world, believe that Glasgow
is justifiably the 1999 UK City of Architecture and Design.
Gaventa is communications director of the Glasgow 1999 Company, formed
by the city’s council and development agency to manage the year-long
She was appointed in October - 11 months after the Arts Council named
Glasgow as host - to organise the PR and marketing strategy of 1999.
Formidable in itself, Gaventa’s task faces major challenges, including
handling the endemically divided Labour council, co-ordinating publicity
for a growing raft of official and unofficial 1999 events and managing
the city’s high expectations. ’In recent times, Glasgow has had the year
as City of European Culture, which had enormous amounts of money, and
the garden festival. People may expect glittering palaces but 1999 will
be more low-key as we’ve not got that sort of money,’ explains
PR must negotiate very different audiences, from the informed
architecture and design community to the man on the Glasgow omnibus.
Gaventa kicked off activity by targeting Glasgow’s local press who, by
the time of her appointment, were distinctly frosty.
’It was disheartening when I arrived,’ she recalls. ’Everyone was saying
we weren’t doing anything but really it was just that they hadn’t been
told what was going on.’
The strategy seems to have had some success - the most hostile critic,
the Glasgow Herald, now has a 1999 correspondent and carries a weekly
architecture and design page - and Gaventa will now target local
broadcast media and give presentations to local interest groups. The
focus on national and lifestyle media will start in the run-up to the
April launch of the 1999 mission document, which will reveal details of
Glasgow’s 1999 plans and will, Gaventa hopes, go some way towards
managing those expectations.
Throughout her tenure, Gaventa, previously press officer with the Royal
Institute of British Architects, has also been in debate with the trade
press. Currently a one-woman communications outfit, she does not intend
to recruit a retained PR agency but will take on consultants to handle
particular projects. She also intends to establish a network of related
PR, tourist, arts and architecture and design professionals locally to
share information and support.
Whatever the merits of the 1999 events, or the company’s communication
efforts, Gaventa acknowledges the efforts of her predecessors in
’There is a massive amount of pride in the city,’ she says. ’No-one
needs to be convinced that it is a great place.’