The Great and Good of Public Relations in Northern Ireland

The Great and Good of Public Relations in Northern Ireland

This time last year I didn’t know what public relations was.  I had no interest in or idea of the importance and relevance of “PR” in everyday life. I would automatically have thought of the stunts devised to distract the public’s attention from the real stories or those who offer discounted entry to Thompsons and Alibi on a Saturday night in Belfast. However, since I began studying an MSc in Communication & Public Relations in September, this understanding has been altered.  Recently, having attended a CIPR conference which showcased the very best of public relations in Northern Ireland, my narrow understanding has been radically altered – so much so that I’ve dedicated my first blog post to the great and good of PR in NI. (I swear I’m not hoping for a job offer at the end of this.) I should probably apologise for the delay in writing this post – juggling a full time masters degree with an internship and a part time job is more excessive than I imagined. And people say men can’t multi-task? Pfftttt! Again, this point is rubbish because I’ve edited this post while brainstorming dissertation topics over a few bottles of wine. Hope you enjoy. 

1 – “We Do Great Things And We Can Prove It”

This point had to be first as it really got me thinking. It’s the motto of ASG and Partners agency but for me it sums up what we all should be aiming for. Regardless of our jobs, positions, activities – our focus should always be on doing great things and making sure we can prove it at the end. As Gold Award winners in the Community Relations category, Sasha McKnight highlighted the positive impact which PR has not only on businesses but the communities which they are based in. Marks & Spencer (M&S, marksies, whatever you call it), in Northern Ireland utilised the expertise of ASG & Partners to mark their fifty years of existence in Northern Ireland while reinforcing their position as a supporter of the local communities which they were established in. Retaining this client for almost two decades is proof in itself of the great work this agency carries out. Without trust, success will be impossible in this business. The moral of the story – do great things and prove it! The PR industry in Northern Ireland whether public sector or private are time and again proving their greatness!!

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2 – Community Relations

This thread ran throughout these presentations. Public relations has the ability and resources to benefit and promote communities. The examples of M&S; JComms work with “The Titanic Hotel” which retold the stories of those who had worked and fell in love around the Belfast docks; the community effort of the local people of Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry who worked alongside Ruth Rodgers and the Southern Health and Social Care Trust Comms team to save its emergency department from closure; the promotion of Basketball in Northern Ireland by Massive PR and Byrony Chapman, a sport which was at one time popular among both communities and the “Let’s Keep on Supporting People” campaign run by Weber Shandwick which raised awareness of the importance of the “Supporting People” organisation in Northern Ireland are testament of the importance of this aspect. Incorporating the community into public relations strategies is key and helps to build and maintain a positive and successful reputation for the organisation.

3 – Media Relations

The interconnectedness of PR and the media was reinforced throughout the student conference. Lewis et al (2008: 2) have pointed to the dance theory – “it takes two to tango.” Essentially, PR relies on the media as a conduit for spreading its campaign messages while the media relies on PR for fresh material. The PRide campaign winners utilised an extensive network within the media frame to enhance their success. I was impressed with the different techniques used. These ranged from JComms dedicating a specific launch night for the press, ahead of the community and stakeholders and the Southern HSCT who worked extensively with the local newspaper, “The Newry Reporter” to find a positive solution. Of course, Social Media was also utilised as an appropriate mechanism for developing these campaigns. Charlotte Goss and Clearbox were tasked with bringing relevancy for Bushmills Irish Whiskey to a younger consumer. While traditional press methods were vital for the other campaigns, connecting with a younger audience through social media channels was integral for this one.  Along with 300 pieces of media coverage across online, print and social media, 773,000 reaches on Instagram and 21,700 engagements on social media posts, Clearbox effectively achieved their objectives. Being aware of your audience and how best to interact with them is important in any campaign.

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4 – Low Budgets

A successful PR campaign requires serious financial investment? Not quite. The campaigns organised by ASG & Partners and Weber Shandwick were gold standard award winners and guess what? They were both low budget campaigns. Impressive or what? What is even more impressive is the impact they had on wider society. The M&S campaign took on fifty local projects which benefited over fifteen thousand individuals inside two weeks. Incredible! On the other hand, the issue of homelessness needs no introduction for most. It’s becoming a prevalent sight in most of our cities and unfortunately is spreading into small towns. The loss of three million pounds in funding would have exacerbated this situation further as well as impacting on the elderly, young people and those with disabilities who relied heavily on the fund. Enter Johnny Stewart and Weber Shandwick. Despite not having a significant budget, this campaign ensured that £2.6 million of funding was returned and that greater awareness of the importance of this organisation was raised. PR plays a substantial and sustainable role in people’s everyday lives. This is the message I intend to share when people question the relevance of PR in today’s world.

5- Youth and Experience

This conference highlighted to us students the diversity which exists within the PR industry here in Northern Ireland. Youth and experience. Female and male. Public sector and private sector. PR grads and those who took a different path. The main point- whatever the background, with hard work, dedication and a willingness to learn, the world (and the PR industry here and further afield) is our oyster. Listening and learning from Brittany Breslin, the CIPR NI’s Young Communicator of the Year was a fantastic opportunity. Her passion for the industry is inspiring and her advice on networking with individuals in journalism and advertising was invaluable. Moreover, the success of Charlotte Goss and Johnny Stewart, recent graduates from the Public Relations and Communications undergraduate degrees at Ulster University was another encouraging moment. In a climate where graduate jobs seem difficult to find, the success of these two is very reassuring. It would be rude of me not to lavish praise on Sasha McKnight, Jane Williams and Ruth Rodgers. These three ladies epitomise the calibre of practitioners here in Northern Ireland. They both started at the bottom of the ladder and in a relatively short space of time, have reached the top. For the student body, it was an incredible opportunity to learn from all these individuals. I would like to thank all the speakers, Dr Phil Ramsey and Dr Conor McGrath from Ulster University and the CIPR NI Committee especially Arlene McPhillips for attending the conference and highlighting the benefits of student membership of the CIPR.

I realise I’m late to the blogging scene but I’ve really enjoyed working on this one. I hope anyone that’s read to this point will have learnt something about this industry and can appreciate the talented individuals/organisations that surround us. I certainly have!

Jordan Mullan is an MSc in Communication and Public Relations student at Ulster University, and a student member of the CIPR Northern Ireland committee. He can be found at: Twitter – @Jordan_Mullan ; LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordan-mullan-23b1a2b8/