If these walls could talk…

If these walls could talk…

A PR student’s take on Northern Ireland’s murals

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Northern Ireland was recently named Lonely Planet’s best region to visit in 2018. The world’s largest travel book publisher hailed the beautiful North Coast and Belfast’s bars and restaurants as must see attractions for tourists visiting Ireland.

I for one think it’s an incredibly well-deserved accolade. We are spoilt in Northern Ireland by beaches and stunning scenery, music and sport, and even despite living in London for a year, I still think the best food I’ve ever eaten has been within a stone’s throw of my front door.

But when a friend from England came to visit me in Belfast recently, I knew there was one thing I had to show her. Something truly unique to Northern Ireland; the kind of tourist attraction that isn’t quite picturesque enough for the glossy pages of a Lonely Planet publication but gives a Belfast first-timer a true taste of our rich history.

Now, my experience of political and religious contention in Belfast doesn’t amount to much more than memories of my Mum telling us not to play in certain neighbouring streets with our GAA jerseys on. I didn’t live through ‘the Troubles’ and my house is in a mixed area in Belfast, on a mixed road, with both Protestant and Catholic neighbours. It has been a relatively safe place to grow up. But I’ve always been interested in Northern Ireland’s colourful past, and believe that Belfast’s turbulent history is a part of it’s charm.

So, when my Leeds-born English pal landed in Belfast we jumped in a black cab of the Belfast variety, and did a Taxi Tour of the murals in West Belfast, spending two hours around the peace walls that run through the most divided part of the city.

Mural painting really took off in Belfast in the early 1970s and it’s believed that almost 2,000 murals have been documented since then. They are used by both Loyalist and Republican communities, as tools of political expression and have become an integral part of Northern Ireland’s history.

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It got me thinking; this part of Belfast’s culture is one of it’s unique selling points. As someone who revels in the charm of this city and has great pride in it’s offerings as an up-and-coming tourist destination, I think of the murals as less conventional tourism gems.

As a PR student, I see the original and most famous murals as unique forms of political propaganda. During the Troubles these detailed depictions told their neighbours what the newspapers wouldn’t. Mainstream media channels of the time would censor many of the messages aimed at the ears of Loyalist and Republican communities, so murals were commissioned to be the news bulletins that people couldn’t avoid.

In more recent years, through the ongoing peace process, we see less paintings of gunmen in balaclavas and the murals are less likely to energise young boys into radical political action. Walls that once encapsulated years of violence and unrest, are now more likely to celebrate local sporting heroes, encourage international peace and portray events from Irish mythology. As they come and go, and change in their style and tone, the murals act as mirrors of Northern Ireland’s changing political and social landscapes.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words –  it’s the communications student in me that looks at the murals as a way of skilful story telling. I admire their ability to communicate complex messages, with depth and breadth of meaning, in a simple way. Some murals are newsflashes from Belfast’s history, the front pages of Northern Ireland newspapers, reproduced and granted long-term residency on gable walls. Some are stunning works of art celebrating key events in Irish history or showing solidarity to international friends. Some commemorate historical figureheads. And some celebrate the new relationships and tolerance between the two sides in Northern Ireland. Infact, since the Good Friday Agreement we’ve welcomed the most unlikely of artistic collaborations – Loyalist mural painter Mark Ervine and former IRA volunteer turned artist Danny Devenny, who are involved together in several mural projects to promote peace in Belfast.

History and geography dictate that Belfast will most likely never be a completely unified city. But that doesn’t mean to say we haven’t made progress and one only has to explore the murals – past and present – to see how far Northern Ireland has come.

The murals stand as poignant reminders of the violence, the trauma and the trouble we hope not to relive in Belfast, and reflect the positive steps we have taken in the hope of a bright future.

Paula McKay is a 4th year BSc in Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be contacted at http://www.linkedin.com/in/paulamckay55, and on Twitter @paulamck55 Continue reading “If these walls could talk…”

Addressing PR’s PR Problem and the search for the answer to ‘What is PR?’

Does anyone else know that slightly perplexed look you get when you tell someone you’re doing a degree/work in PR? When people ask me what I’m studying at university and I tell them ‘Public Relations’ they usually look confused, like I’ve made it up or, if they think they do know what PR is they’re usually wrong and find it difficult to believe that you can actually do a degree in it. It’s a bit ironic really; the PR industry do a poor job at their own public relations.

This has led me to thinking about the definition of PR, my understanding of the industry and its place in the world of business today.  If nothing else, a little bit of research into what is meant by ‘PR’ will at least give us a few well-informed lines to offer the next time someone asks ‘What’s that?’ or suggests that we’ll be selling tickets to events for the rest of our lives.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) defines PR as ‘the discipline which looks after reputation’ and emphasises its importance in today’s flooded and competitive business market, where ‘reputation can be a company’s biggest asset – the thing that makes you stand out from the crowd and gives you a competitive edge’ (CIPR, 2017).

It’s true; PR is concerned with promoting and protecting a company’s reputation but, I think it’s so much more than that. If we were to describe our profession as simply ‘looking after a company’s reputation’ we’d be selling ourselves short. Public relations encompasses an extensive list of specialities and skills (shown in the table below) and today’s PR professionals have to be able to turn their hand to many of them.

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Taking a look at this list, if I had to sum up PR in just one word I think ‘communication’ is more relevant than ‘reputation’. PR professionals are ‘communicators’ and use expertise in communications to help companies build bilateral relationships with their publics. Better still, we can effectively describe PR as ‘strategic management of communication’ (Ledingham and Bruning, 1998).

For those of us coming to the end of our degree, having already experienced the crazy world of PR while on placement and those of us already working in the industry, we are well aware of the long list of skills we are expected to master (it’s difficult to keep on top of it all)! The problem lies with how the media portrays the industry and subsequently the perceptions (or lack thereof) our friends and family have of the jobs we do.

After all, PR is an invisible industry and it usually hides behind the camera. Albeit with the exceptions of those few portrayals in the public eye; the real people or fictional characters that have somehow come to be the ‘faces’ of PR and shape the way the industry is perceived. I’m thinking Downing Street Press Secretary Alastair Campbell and Sex in the City‘s Samantha Jones, who respectively helped to cement PR’s reputation as one of two evils. Apparently we are either nefarious ‘spin doctors’ accountable for some serious media manipulation or glamorous schmoozers in designer pencil skirts, attending star-studded parties.

Admittedly, there are small elements of truth in both depictions but the real thing isn’t quite as juicy. Yes, we are involved in developing messages and sharing stories with the media to help shape public opinion, and we do organise/attend an event or two in the average working week. But more importantly we are strategic thinkers, effective communicators and extremely hard workers, and to give credit where credit is due, most industries and business sectors could not exist without PR. People are quick to throw around the term, ‘PR stunt’ with ephemeral negativity or affiliate PR with pretty girls promoting nightclubs. But in discovering more about the profession we quickly realise that PR is everywhere and every career field has a PR element related to it. We are living in a noisy world where we are inundated with information every day and as PR pros we help to communicate the messages businesses, organisations, charities, and governments need people to know in order for them to continue to exist.

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The truth is, there is no single all-encompassing answer as to what PR professionals do and each of us have our own unique talents that we bring to the table. But together we manage to uphold a long-serving industry that supports the world of business in helping professionals communicate more effectively with their customers, stakeholders and the public.

Paula McKay is a 4th year BSc in Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be contacted at http://www.linkedin.com/in/paulamckay55, and on Twitter @paulamck55

Stepping out of my comfort zone and taking the placement year plunge

I spent a few days looking for inspiration and thinking of topics for my first ever blog post. I scrolled through Twitter and looked at articles in the news to find something interesting and current to write about, and something that people would want to read. But my mind kept floating back to my placement year. I figured it would be fitting for my first piece of writing as a final year PR student to provide a little bit of background information about me, the year that brought me here and provide some context to thoughts I’ll share in future posts. And as for addressing a specific audience… 2nd year PR students this one’s for you.

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I arrived back in Belfast this summer after completing a year’s placement with the UK Publicity team at Warner Bros. Entertainment UK in London. My mum said to me recently that I “left Belfast a student and came back an adult”. After finishing my first two weeks of 4th year with drive and a determination to work hard and ‘hit the ground running’ I feel like she could be right (after all, mums always are).

I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t get the flight to London for my interview that day dreaming of getting the job. I’m a home bird and even moving to Dublin, nevermind London wasn’t really what I had in mind for the year. In fact, it scared the life out of me. I applied for the Warner Bros placement ‘for the experience’ and as practice for the many applications I planned to fill out for the Belfast placements that were due to be advertised in the following weeks. But nevertheless I found myself boarding the first of my many BFS-LDN flights for the assessment day and consequently saying “Yes please” when my soon-to-be boss called to offer me the position.

Moving away from Belfast was a huge deal for me and having never thought I’d even get the job, the prospect of packing up my life and moving to London was incredibly daunting. But I am a firm believer in ‘everything happens for a reason’. I surprised myself and never looked back!

I am very lucky to have been given the amazing opportunities and experiences I had during my time at Warner Bros. I worked on the publicity campaigns for some of 2016 and 2017s’ biggest films, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemWonder Woman and Dunkirk, and learned from the most amazing people in the industry. I worked at premieres and events that many PR students would dream of being part of. It was a rollercoaster and probably the best year of my life (so far)! I never dreamed I’d be a part of such an amazing team or work on the incredible projects I did. But it is true what they say, you only get out of something what you put in and I worked harder than I have ever worked before.

The good times and captured highlights didn’t come without time, energy, late nights, early starts and a new reliance on caffeine (shout out to Café Nero at Holborn station). Photos on a red carpet were only the end product of what was usually weeks of hard work. But nothing worth having comes easy! I learnt more in those 13 months at Warner than I have in all my years of education combined. Hard work, commitment, resilience and initiative are things they can’t teach you at uni.

As for London life, I loved every bit of it (apart from the central line…avoid at all costs)! As one of Belfast’s biggest fans, it turns out that the best thing I ever did was to spend a year away from it. I embraced every opportunity London threw at me and made the most of everyday in what I believe to be one of the best places in the world!

I couldn’t imagine now not having done my placement at Warner, being the Publicity intern or moving to London. It was the scariest thing I have ever done but among the many things I learned along my placement year journey, is the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone, challenging yourself and just going for it. You might think something is not for you, but you’ll never know until you try and you may just surprise yourself!

 

Paula McKay is a 4th year PR student at Ulster University. She can be contacted at http://www.linkedin.com/in/paulamckay55, and on Twitter @paulamck55