Wednesday, 20 October 2010

London and the regions

There's a lot of rubbish said and written about London PR companies versus regional PR companies (much of it by London PR companies). I think it's fair to say that a decade and more ago, the prevailing view was that the best agencies and people were almost all based in London. Whether this view could be backed up by evidence is a moot point, but perception is essentially reality, and reality bites.

Towards the end of the 1990s, I worked in a London agency and I had some great, extremely talented colleagues (you know who you are). At that time, there were also some practical reasons why a London location was useful. This was particularly the case in the world of consumer PR.

Back then, as well as faxing or even posting press releases, we still supplied images in the form of transparencies (or 'dupes'). So, naturally, being able to send an image (or VHS tape) to a national magazine, newspaper or TV studio by bike was an important part of the job that agencies based in Manchester, Leeds or Sunderland couldn't really fulfil. We could also send client product samples from our on site showroom (or from under our desks!).

In most parts, how times have changed! I can't remember the last time I faxed a press release or even saw a transparency. I can email large image files in a matter of seconds (even when I'm on the move) and ftp sites make it easy to supply footage to media outlets far and wide. Sure, I can't bike a Berghaus jacket from my office to a photoshoot in London on the same day, but the brand's flagship store in Covent Garden can help me out with that. And, through all sorts of contemporary, socially and professionally accepted, methods of communication I can have an ongoing, effective dialogue with media contacts around the world.

Having said all of that, London is still really important to me in my role (and by the way, I acknowledge that some of the best PR agencies in the world, let alone UK, are based there). There's nothing quite like face to face contact to help develop a good rapport with someone (it worked with my wife, I think). So, I like to get down to London village fairly regularly to meet up with journalists and other individuals and companies with whom/which I deal. I really don't believe I need to be based in the capital, but it will always be an important part of my working life.

I was in London this week, as the city of Sunderland took its new Economic Masterplan to Westminster. During a series of events, Sunderland outlined its bold, but realistic vision for the city, for the next 15 years. I was really impressed by the turnout (quantity and quality) at the various seminars, workshops and receptions, and the whole process seems to have gone very well, and been very well received.

During a break between meetings, I had a brief opportunity to stand in the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament and soak up the atmosphere. What a buzz and what a setting. And during those moments, as I observed what was happening around me, I was reminded that in the UK political sphere at least, advances in technology matter not a jot, in the absence of a presence in Westminster. That makes it ever more important, especially in the current climate, for the North East to work hard to sustain a voice in the vicinity of Big Ben. Individual locations such as Sunderland, and certain special interest groups, are doing their bit, but I still fervently believe that this should be done in the context of a regional voice.

One North East used to hold regular Westminster events that maintained a momentum and propogated important messages. In the fracturing situation we have now, this region faces a greater challenge than ever to exert any influence. The efforts of cities, local authorities and other organisations is laudable, but I fear that individually, they have little chance of making themselves heard in the hubbub of Westminster. More than ever, North East England needs to find a way to define and exercise its voice. And quickly.