Steve Howell, Freshwater: Switch on to local concerns

PR professionals must be aware that what is good for London may not be good for the regions.

When the results start coming in on 6 May, the BBC's Swingometer could start spinning out of control.

It is generally agreed that the outcome of the general election is hard to predict. But this is not just because the two major parties are relatively close in the polls. A new element of uncertainty has been created by the rise of nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This is the first election to take place with all three of those parties - the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein - in government in their respective nations.

That fact alone will create a complex post-election situation - whichever party wins - as a Westminster Parliament introduces spending cuts that will affect the plans of the devolved assemblies.

Underpinning this fragmentation of politics is an intriguing paradox. On the one hand, there has been extraordinary globalisation of economic decision-making over the past three decades. On the other, political decision-making has become more fragmented as people demand a say in the way society is run - at least at local level.

The two major parties have responded to this demand in different ways. Since being elected in 1997, Labour has pioneered devolution, created the Greater London Assembly and set up Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in England.

The Conservatives are now strong advocates of 'localism' - giving local authorities more financial freedom, allowing local referendums and introducing directly elected police commissioners. They will abolish the RDAs and encourage alternative regional economic partnerships.

It is clear that businesses will need to be ever more switched on to local sensitivities. It isn't good enough to think that what works in London will also work in Leith, Lampeter or Lisburn.

Bridging the local-global gap is what regional PR is now increasingly about - whoever wins the Westminster race.

Read on for Freshwater's Views from the Regions.....

1. WALES - Antony Jones, director

- Which regional players have raised their profile in the past year?

The Welsh Rugby Union under chief executive Roger Lewis is one organisation that has been successful in building (some would say rebuilding) its reputation, particularly on the news and business pages.

Positive coverage of the union's off-the-field achievements has at least kept pace with the reporting of its often stormy internal affairs.

Following the investment in its new city centre Atrium site, the University of Glamorgan has continued to punch above its weight in media terms with a creative approach to PR and an ever-growing list of academics who are willing to express forthright views on issues from management theory to natural disasters.

- What is the best example of campaigning journalism in your area?

Green issues have been high on the agenda in Wales, with a raft of renewable energy projects proposed or under way in different parts of the country.

In North Wales, the Daily Post has forcefully put forward its views on the legitimacy of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which is an unelected body set up to consider proposals for major energy and transport infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, Media Wales has launched its Go Green initiative, a multi-channel approach to intensifying the debate on climate change and highlighting the successes and failures of environmental schemes in Wales.

2. SCOTLAND - Kim McGuire, account director

- What is the best example of campaigning journalism in your area?

The Evening Times launched its Ripped off Glasgow campaign last year to highlight what it believed were unjust decisions made by the Government on utilities and subsidies for the city.

The grievance was that the city of Glasgow, when compared with Edinburgh, wasn't getting its fair share of the financial pie.

To many, it might have looked like an opportunity for a bit of capital bashing, part of the tale of two cities that has being toing-and-froing since time immemorial.

However, the campaign has achieved some notable results.

The claim was that Glasgow, as Scotland's largest employer, generating in excess of £13bn gross value per annum, was getting very little in return for the efforts of its taxpayers.

So far, the Times has persuaded ministers to set up a museum summit to consider funding for the city. The summit will also allow Glasgow to display a £50m Titian painting that was originally to go on display in Edinburgh only.

Also, the campaign underlined that utility firms were carrying out botched repair jobs on Glasgow's mountain of potholes.

The newspaper lobbied for a 'bond scheme', under which utility firms would pay a deposit before starting work, something the transport minister is currently considering.

Ripped off Glasgow has also secured £5m of town centre regeneration funding in order to improve three residential areas in the city.

3. NORTHERN IRELAND - Darlene McCormick, managing director

- Which regional players have raised their profile in the past year?

Under the guidance of general manager Mike Todd, Northern Ireland's Down Royal Racecourse has done an excellent job of promoting itself and maintaining gate figures despite an overall downturn in attendance at racing events in Ireland.

The addition of a multi-million-pound corporate venue and the widening of the racecourse's offer to include packages such as afternoon teas have contributed to this.

The highlight of the racing calendar in Northern Ireland is the Specsavers 2 for 1 Derby, held at the racecourse. This event was voted the Most Glamorous Event in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland public this year.

The racecourse has astutely brought in value hospitality offerings that complement the traditional packages.

Also, digital media have played an important role for the racecourse, which counts a Facebook presence among its online initiatives. A shining beacon of fun, glamour and good business in an overcast environment.

- Tell us about one good thing the recession has caused in your region.

The recession has caused marketers to look more closely at what really works. It's all about accountability (in both senses of the word). With tighter budgets, brands can't simply buy share of voice. Cut-through, which comes easiest with great creative, is what's needed. This is good news for PR because finding a creative and newsworthy idea and making it work hard for a brand is where great PR delivers.

4. MIDLANDS - Anne Parry, managing director

- Tell us about one good thing the recession has caused in your region.

The West Midlands has been hit hard by the recession and there have been thousands of job losses across both blue and white collar sectors in the manufacturing and service industries.

Future employment prospects remain challenging across the region.

However, some good has come out of the economic downturn in that there has been a major cultural shift towards up-skilling and training, with a new focus on bridging the skills gap in the region.

More than 11,000 people who were made redundant have been helped to develop their skills by Better West Midlands, a project backed by the regional European Social Fund, and £20m has recently been secured to extend support to a further 13,500 workers.

- What is the best example of campaigning journalism in your area?

Brummies are passionate about Birmingham and its heritage. When the Birmingham Mail was faced with Kraft's takeover bid for confectionery company Cadbury, it was quick to join the fight by launching its Hands Off Cadbury campaign in December 2009.

Readers were encouraged to sign a petition to save Cadbury from the clutches of Kraft, and the Mail, as the city's biggest daily newspaper, pledged its support in a bid to save the future of one of the world's best-known brands.

The high-profile public support campaign did not prevent the US food giant acquiring Cadbury on 19 January 2010, but the Mail's campaign was generally applauded and definitely engendered a greater sense of belonging and loyalty among its readers.

- Steve Howell is chief executive of Freshwater UK

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