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!!

AA11

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.

AA22

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/

CIPR/UU Student Conference 2019

CIPR/UU Student Conference 2019

On Wednesday 20th February, eager students gathered to hear a variety of talks by CIPR Northern Ireland PRide winners showcasing their award winning campaigns. They were set for a highly informative conference. The room was booming with inspiration with representatives from private agencies and also the public sector.

Jane Williams, brand communications director for JComms, spoke first, explaining how they had won the best use of media award generated for the Titanic Hotel construction and launch. She first settled any ambivalent feelings students had about it, by placing prominence on community throughout the campaign and building amicable relationships with those who had ties to the Titanic Hotel Belfast. They faced a huge brief but persevered and dove deeply into history focusing on the authenticity of the Titanic. They were research focused so they could be well informed. Jane  gave valuable insight on how to prevent media fatigue for launching big events. AA7

Following on as Gold Award winners in the community relations category, Sasha McKnight from ASG & Partners raised momentum again with her opening quote “We do great things and we can prove it”. ASG set the bar high with M&S to capture the milestone of 50 years since its first store in Northern Ireland opened. They took on 50 projects in such a short space of time. Sasha tenaciously reiterated that their focused approach highlighted the importance of going back to objectives. Stating they had to unearth new meaning for coverage in Northern Ireland, she felt that stakeholder engagement was key to a successful campaign.

The theme of building strong local ties through human interest stories was brought to life by Bryony Chapman of Massive PR (the outstanding small consultancy winner), who faced the brief of repositioning the Basketball Belfast classic as a world class event. She spoke of strategies used to optimise media coverage to build awareness for the Belfast classic and the Sport Changes Life Foundation. Bryony gave us great insight into managing media relations which was the epitome for a successful campaign. Charlotte Goss of Clearbox described in detail their spirited campaign with Bushmills Irish whiskey and how they transitioned the traditional image of Irish whiskey for younger people. The stellar results of their research showed that 76% of young people from 25-35 years of age hadn’t answered their call and were not doing what they loved. They transformed this statistic into a campaign by #AnswerTheCall. This campaign brought to the forefront the sheer power in partnering with local creatives.The CIPR NI’s young communicator of the year, Brittany Breslin, stressed the importance to students of internships and gaining experience within the industry. She emphasised that networking was valuable to those entering the industry.

Next came a speaker from the public sector. Ruth Rogers, head of communications for Southern Health & Social Care Trust (winner of the issues, crisis and reputation management category), described in detail the crisis facing her team with the Emergency Department of Newry’s Daisy Hill hospital and the possible threat of reduced hours. Ruth exposed the bones and  mechanisms behind the strategy used which placed community participation on a pedestal as it was the key to the success of the project. Ruth instilled in us that creativity is at the forefront in public sector communications.

AA27

To conclude the conference, Johnny Stewart from Weber Shandwick outlined their award winning low budget campaign with “Supporting People” who provide accommodation for the elderly, homeless, young people and those with disabilities. This campaign called for almost £3 million of funding to be returned to 80+ providers of the Supporting People programme. Johnny informed us about the “media kits” that were introduced and numerous guides produced for the SP providers, ensuring they equipped the SP providers in the best way possible. They managed to see £2.6 million of that funding returned. It hit home to the students how PR plays a pivotal role in peoples’ day to day lives and not just ostentatiously in the world of influencing.

To the students’ delight there was a great mix of solid campaigns. It gave us the students, plenty of scope and food for thought for a career in public relations. The conference showed that the world is your oyster when it comes to public relations and that it will be impactful and exciting whatever career path you choose.

20 February 2019, Mandatory Credit ©Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Catherine Mockler is an MSc in Communication and Public Relations student at Ulster University, and a student member of the CIPR Northern Ireland committee. She can be found at: LinkedIn – https://ie.linkedin.com/in/catherine-mockler-01b40b94.

The Tale of Two Placements

While studying Communication, Advertising and Marketing at Ulster University, it felt like most of second year at university was consumed with the stress of securing a placement year to commence in the summer.  It’s one of the first things that gets mentioned on the induction day of second year, filling you with both fear and anticipation…and of course you start to day dream of the exciting and new world that lies outside the lecture theatres and in the real-life world of the marketing communication industry.

I tried to be selective when applying for jobs as I wanted to ensure that I found a company that would be a good fit for me and would allow me to gain the knowledge and insight I wanted to achieve from my placement year.  After a few rejections I finally saw a job advert that seemed like the perfect fit looking for a media assistant at ASG & Partners on the Holywood Road in Belfast.  Upon receiving a phone call inviting me to interview for the job I discovered that there was another job role sandwiched onto the media assistant role – marketing assistant for one of their partner companies, Webrecruit Ireland.  All the stress of trying to find one placement, and then all of a sudden here I was confronted with the possibility to work two back-to-back, it was definitely an enticing offer and I was overjoyed to hear I’d been successful in landing the job.

So towards the end of June 2016 I headed off the Holywood Road unsure of what lay ahead but excited to begin my two placements.  What was to follow was a year of a lot of learning, a lot challenges and a lot of fond memories.

From the one desk I worked both jobs and from the one email inbox managed both job enquiries – called Jonny in one and Jonathan in the other so at times it did feel like I had a slight split-personality disorder.  My media days were Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and marketing on the other two.  Of course it was impossible to switch off from either and I would constantly find myself trying to discreetly answer a call so that I wouldn’t annoy one boss over the other.  The way my time was negotiated and swapped around did at times feel like I was stuck in the middle of two divorced parents.

The media industry in Northern Ireland is an exciting and fast paced environment that seems to be ever-evolving.  I got to work on some amazing campaigns for the likes of Remus Uomo, Belfast International Arts Festival and Forestside Shopping Centre…and never a dull day in the office, even ended up as a last minute model in one of the campaigns for Forestside.

There is also a great social side to Belfast’s advertising world – and getting to be a part of PANI was amazing. It gave me the opportunity to network and form relationships with local suppliers. When I arrived at ASG, I was thrown in the deep-end and taken to my first event on day four of my placement, but everyone was so welcoming and it was great to get to know familiar faces over the year.

Webrecruit Ireland was a small team 5 and I worked as a marketing assistant under the direct leadership of the managing director.  What wasn’t made aware to me at the time of interviewing was that I was the only member of the marketing team and while a little daunting at first to learn that the companies marketing activities fell almost solely on my shoulders there was no time to panic.  It was my job to plan the social media calendar, email marketing and keep the website up-to-date among other ad-hoc duties – thank goodness for Google because it definitely helped me out of a few binds during the year.

While yes, my placement year did have its challenges, some of which I definitely wasn’t expecting – I wouldn’t change anything about the year.  It gave me a taste of two very different sides of the marketing communications industry and better prepared me for heading in to final year and beyond that into graduate employment.

For anyone thinking of skipping the opportunity to do a placement year I would definitely urge you to reconsider because the experience gained is too good an opportunity to turn down.

 

Jonny Allen is a final year Communication, Advertising and Marketing student at Ulster University.  You can find him on LinkedIn here – https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonny-allen-257237112/