TUESDAY 31 OCT 2017 4:52 PM


As communications shifts outside major urban hubs, can companies based in other regions burst the London bubble? Amy Sandys reports

London, capital city of the UK, is home to some seven million people. Add to this the further three million commuting into the metropolis for work each day, the 19 million visitors the city accrues each year, London’s recognised status as a global city; the result is a veritable melting pot. With the financial hubs, media centres and endless opportunities for socialising, it is easy to forget that the UK boats a plethora of alternative cities and counties with their own centres of creativity – all contributing to the ever-growing regional communications industry.

And, as more agencies than ever are established, more agencies than ever are choosing locations outside of the capital. Mitigating factors such as capital and space are ever-present. But often, a willingness to pool talent from the UK’s diverse regions, and the emergence of creative hubs in these areas, is reason enough to change the spatial dynamics of the UK’s communications and PR industry.

The communications industry is intrinsic to the successful running of the UK’s industries, businesses and centres of commerce. Recent figures released by public relations trade association, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), suggest that the UK’s PR and communications industry is worth £12.9bn, employing an 83,000-strong workforce. Operating across all levels, practitioners ensure employees and employers are engaged and happy within their respective workforce – no matter where they are based. However, despite the profession’s continued proliferation, the assumption that London is the centre from which the UK communications industry stems can be rife.

For organisations like the PRCA, reference to London as the main source of people, capital and effective communications is a hindrance to the forward-thinking mindset inherent to the UK PR and communications industry – and does a disservice to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the rest of England. “I think the image of non-London employers losing out on talent to the capital city is a deeply outmoded one,” says Matt Cartmell, communications, marketing and events director at the PRCA. “Hugely successful PR hubs are already well-established in cities like Manchester, Edinburgh and Cardiff and can offer competitive packages for great talent at all levels. The same highly diverse range of business models exist outside London as they do within it.”

For many PR and communications professionals, the digitisation of communication plays a key role in aiding the rise of remote workforces and divesting industry focus away from one central hub. From Inverness to St Ives, via Aberystwyth, Nottingham and Omagh, allowing regions to connect instantly takes away the pressure on communicators to have a constant presence in one office, or many. For Amie Pascoe, director at Oxford-based marine and energy PR consultancy Blue Communications, social media means the distances between her team, based in Oxford, and her clients around the globe, rarely conflict with business. “I am constantly on Skype with my team and my clients, it’s great from an instant messaging perspective and because you can see each other,” says Pascoe. “With a phone and a laptop, I can be anywhere in the world. I know you’ll never be able to beat face to face, but because we’re so global in our outlook this is the norm for us – we’re not going to be seeing them every month for a catch up. So long as you’re in constant communications with your team and your clients then we think it’s ok.”

Jon Sellors, head of corporate affairs at insurance company Liverpool Victoria (LV=), agrees. For both Blue Communications and LV=, the surge in video technology underpins communications in an industry where success depends on trust and reputation built from strong client and employee relationships. “We often have our catch up over FaceTime,” says Sellors. “It just works much better than a regular conference call because you’ve got that connection. Technology enables much more flexible working, you don’t have to be based in one location or another. My team and I can work out of any of our offices or work from home and still get the job done.”

However, operating communications and PR teams regionally doesn’t just mean embracing the technology that allows easier interaction with a remote workforce. It means embracing a talent pool of different backgrounds and experiences, all of which meld together to form outlooks which differ by organisation, and by region. Sourcing talent outside of London is one of the best reasons to be open-minded about the regional communications. “If you are just trying to recruit in London, there’s only a certain number of people to go around,” says Sellors. “But if you do have communications teams and functions outside of London, you’ve got a broader talent pool. It’s particularly important, if you have a head office or a core of your business outside of London, to have people that are close to that.”

Cartmell agrees, “Businesses recognise that creativity is not restricted to within the M25, and that there is a wealth of talent outside London that may also provide clients with some much-needed diversity of thought.”

On the other hand, companies can also distribute their workforces according to where certain roles have the most impact. For Sellors and the wider LV= team, splitting its 6,000 employees across 14 offices in the UK means a divided team. Around 3,000 employees work from LV=’s Bournemouth site, with LV=’s media-oriented departments remaining in London; this split is intrinsic to the smooth running of the overall organisation. “I have the PR and public affairs teams based in London and my internal communications team based in Bournemouth,” says Sellors. “London is predominantly where the stakeholders are, so from a media perspective it’s nearer the journalists and PR agencies we work with, so it’s much easier to form closer relationships.”

Retaining the internal communications team at LV=’s central hub in Bournemouth, however, is a key factor in ensuring the organisation’s employees remain engaged at every level – right up to the board. Yet Sellors is also keen to espouse the diversity in thought that a regional approach can foster. Embracing the recruitment opportunities which arise outside of London or major hubs such as Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh – or Bournemouth, in the case of LV= – opens an organisation to a plethora of varied thought unattainable if the same talent pool is continually breached.

“One of the benefits I see from having my internal communications team based in Bournemouth is I get a different perspective and a different mindset,” says Sellors. The diversity of thinking and approach that a regionally-based office can bring is embedded as part of LV=’s future communications strategy. This also involves recognising that just ‘not being in London’ is sometimes not enough – if an organisation espouses a broader, less restricted outlook, then its actions have to match. “What’s on my radar when I’m thinking about next year is making sure my guys get out and about more frequently, particularly coming from the internal communications side of things, and getting to know our own audience better,” says Sellors. “Because as much as there is a London bubble to be outside of, equally when you’re a major employer like we are in Bournemouth, the danger is you’d become a Bournemouth bubble – so getting different perspectives from different regional offices is important as well.”

An attitudinal change among recruiters also seems to be on the horizon. A city regarded highly for its communications industry, a stint in London at a major PR agency was once seen as integral in gaining consummate experience in the PR and communications profession.

But, says Pascoe, prestige does not necessarily equate to professionalism, “Many of the agencies outside of London are by nature smaller and there can be far more opportunity to assume greater responsibility, and for those people that are talented to progress more quickly. And looking at it now as a recruiter, I don’t mind where people have worked before. I just want to know what skills and experience people have and how enthusiastic they are, and how keen they are and what they think about comms and what it means for them. Whether they have worked for a big-name PR agency or not is irrelevant to me.”

A paradigmatic shift is occurring in an industry which has long been at the mercy of the headquarters of major corporations and Fleet Street. As digital communications evolves, so too do the opportunities for communicators across all professions to expand their remit and their mindset, establishing links beyond city boundaries – without necessarily leaving the office. As young professionals continue to flock to London and other major urban centres, perhaps the biggest challenge facing agencies and in-house communications teams is retention. Offering a good job at a competitive salary while sufficiently matching employee expectations is key to enabling young professionals to climb the career ladder in communications.

However, it’s the potential lack of willingness of agencies and companies to address issues around work-life balance, says Pascoe, which might end up being a major challenge facing the communications industry – particularly in major urban hubs. Regionally, however, such issues seem less pressing. Less choice means more chances to specialise; more chances to specialise means an increasing likelihood a communications or PR team is comprised of a workforce passionate about the profession. “The great thing about PR and communications is that there is very little one needs apart from talent and an aptitude for hard work,” says Cartmell. “If you can demonstrate these, your career is highly likely to grow wherever you are based.”