Focus: Scotland - Flowering under the political debate

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.

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

successive quarter.

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

’devolution services’.

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

increasingly sophisticated.

’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

own parliament.

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

business challenge.

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

from London.

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

marketing Glasgow.

’There is a massive amount of pride in the city,’ she says. ’No-one

needs to be convinced that it is a great place.’

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in