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Why schmoozing hacks no longer cuts it for modern PRs

PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 June 2019 | UPDATED: 07:46 19 June 2019

How PR firms in the East are changing the industry

How PR firms in the East are changing the industry

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Public relations has changed - and not every firm will survive. But in East Anglia PR agencies are leading an industry-wide revolution - Sarah Chambers investigates

Spring's 'fun fair' Anglian Water consultation at The Forum in Norwich  Picture: SIMON HAZELGROVESpring's 'fun fair' Anglian Water consultation at The Forum in Norwich Picture: SIMON HAZELGROVE

Public relations is often referred to as a "dark art".

But the general public's view of the relationship between PRs, their clients and the media is wide of the mark - and as the internet revolutionises everything agencies and in-house teams alike have had to up their game.

Many have been left behind - but East Anglian firms are punching above their weight with award-winning campaigns which are having knock-on social and economic benefits for the region and attracting national recognition.

MORE - 'I would abolish job titles' says Adnams boss

Spring's 'fun fair' Anglian Water consultation included a 'beat the bog' attraction, based on a traditional coconut shy  Picture: SIMON HAZELGROVESpring's 'fun fair' Anglian Water consultation included a 'beat the bog' attraction, based on a traditional coconut shy Picture: SIMON HAZELGROVE

A number of companies have succeeded in gaining public awareness of issues that would normally have editors and their readers snoring. These include tricky messages around recycling and water scarcity.

In a forum increasingly dominated by social media and online presence, firms say they need to be bold, adaptable and make use of a wide range of skills. They will also need to adopt an integrated approach to enable clients' messages to cut through.

Spring's water-themed city funfair

Erika Clegg, co-founder of Southwold-based Spring, which has just won national recognition for its community engagement strategy for Anglian Water, said old descriptors - design agency, PR agency, digital agency - were "heading into dinosaur territory" as agencies adapted to a fast-changing environment requiring a range of skills to deliver campaigns.

Felix Wooltorton, 11, waiting for the water to come out of the giant tap at the H20MG water festival by Anglian Water at the Forum  Picture: DENISE BRADLEYFelix Wooltorton, 11, waiting for the water to come out of the giant tap at the H20MG water festival by Anglian Water at the Forum Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Spring has just won two awards working with Anglian Water to come up with a water-themed community engagement scheme called H2OMG!

It took the Best Stakeholder Engagement title at the Corporate Engagement Awards and gold at the Design Business Association's Design Effectiveness Awards.

The team at Spring took their inspiration from summer family activities to come up with an interactive, fun fair-themed, community engagement event at The Forum in Norwich city centre.

Overall, against a target of 8,000 interactions, Spring achieved 21,000 in just six days.

Anglian Water H2OMG at The Forum Norwich  Picture: SIMON FINLAY PHOTOGRAPHYAnglian Water H2OMG at The Forum Norwich Picture: SIMON FINLAY PHOTOGRAPHY

"This worked because it looked at people first, and built out from there," she explained. "People are bombarded with messages from organisations, politicians, 'influencers' and others all trying to get a share of their focus and open their minds to something. For any of this to have a hope of working it has to really stand out and speak to them directly."

Prominent's PR hit with 'Michael Recycle'

Helen Rudd, managing director at Prominent PR based at Felixstowe, said delivering PR campaigns which actually make a tangible difference gave her team "a real sense of achievement".

The firm scooped a gold from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) for its work in creating Michael Recycle - East Cambridgeshire District Council's recycling champion.

Spring's Anglian Water consultation at The Forum in Norwich  Picture: SIMON HAZELGROVESpring's Anglian Water consultation at The Forum in Norwich Picture: SIMON HAZELGROVE

"We kickstarted this campaign with a competition, asking schoolchildren to design a hero to help inspire the region to improve recycling rates," explained Ms Rudd. "Our work included building a life-size mascot, intensive social media content, the design of bin lorry wraparounds, targeted media relations and a school workshop roadshow. By encouraging children to change behaviours in the home we achieved a wider reach and this resulted in the council reaching its 60% recycling target - one of the best in the country."

Brands, businesses and the public sector were increasingly requiring PR to "go deeper" and present "the bigger picture" in terms of reputation and impact," she said.

Genesis lifts accountancy firm's profile

Penny Arbuthnot, director of Genesis, said one of its key campaigns had been increasing brand awareness for UK top six accountancy firm Grant Thornton across the region.

Anglian Water H2OMG at The Forum Norwich Picture; SIMON FINLAY PHOTOGRAPHYAnglian Water H2OMG at The Forum Norwich Picture; SIMON FINLAY PHOTOGRAPHY

This has focused on its annual "Limited" reports, charting the financial performance of the 100 largest companies in each county across the region, and presenting the findings at a series of events.

Grant Thornton partner James Brown said that Genesis's work had raised its profile to "unparalleled levels, providing an invaluable boost to our business development".

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Rebecca Scrase on 'stellar rise' of freelancers

Michael Recycle  East Cambridgeshire District Councils recycling champion, created by Prominent PR  Picture; ELLEN WIDDUPMichael Recycle  East Cambridgeshire District Councils recycling champion, created by Prominent PR Picture; ELLEN WIDDUP

Rebecca Scrase, who runs a PR firm near Ipswich, with clients including tourism businesses Norfolk Cottages and Suffolk Secrets, said the key to success was not a single message campaign but "as the result of a continuous, targeted, multi-channel communications strategy where stories are constantly evolving and media relationships curated over the long term".

She predicted the freelance sector would continue its "stellar rise" in the gig economy as businesses look for more flexible and cost-effective business solutions.

"Multi-platform content creation will see traditional editorial being favoured for video and podcasting and the distinction between marketing, SEO, advertising, PR and even journalism will become increasingly blurred," she said.

Newman Associates' 'unmade bed'

Abel Homes' teenager's bedroom  Picture: ANDY NEWMANAbel Homes' teenager's bedroom Picture: ANDY NEWMAN

Andy Newman, of Newman Associates PR in Norwich, worked with Abel Homes to come up with the idea of 'telling it how it is' to promote a new housing scheme.

They created a typical teenager's bedroom, complete with unmade bed, dirty trainers, a half-eaten sandwich under the bed, and loud music triggered by a motion sensor.

The approach attracted widespread media interest, including two live GMTV outside broadcasts, and national newspaper coverage.

"Initiatives like these can be dismissed as PR 'stunts', but the fact that this idea chimed firmly with the firm's core brand value of family meant that the campaign not only helped sell the development in question, but helped position Abel Homes as an increasing confident and important player in the new homes sector in the county," said Mr Newman.

He maintained the basics of PR remain constant, even though technology and social media platforms have transformed the way companies communicate. 'Fake news' and lack of confidence about what's said on social media mean people are less inclined to believe the message, which meant 'traditional' media such as newspapers, TV and radio were still "hugely important" as a credible source of information and remained "very powerful", he said.

"No matter how good the communication, reputation is first and foremost based on reality," he said.

The PR professional's most important role was to help clients make the decisions about their business to enhance and maintain their reputation. "Unless you get that bit right, no amount of slick communications will be effective."

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