Local PR is shaking off its dusty image to become a hugely important part of the comms mix, argues Ed Whitehead, head of FSC’s Birmingham office
It’s almost a year since I last set foot in our Birmingham office, and it’s clear that the world of work will never be the same again. According to one recent survey, 87% of us want to work from home for two or more days a week once the pandemic is finally over.
Such a profound change to our working habits has already had a major impact on consumer trends. Traffic and footfall to city centres has plummeted, and the pain was felt last year by many retailers, as well as lunchtime favourites like Pret and Abokado, who, overnight, lost a huge chunk of their trade as offices were mothballed.
Conversely, some hospitality businesses were able to bounce back relatively quickly coming out of the first Lockdown – those situated close to where people live. Our client, Hawthorn, the community pub company, owns pubs in villages and neighbourhood locations, and CEO Mark Davies told the Morning Advertiser that the trend for localisation is likely to continue into the future.
“People will be working at home at least two or three days a week, they’re going to stay local, shop local and socialise local – that’s the big, fundamental shift that we are seeing here.”
So, if people are going to continue spending their time and money closer to home, how should companies adapt their communications strategies?
The key will be engagement with local media. Despite a net loss of 245 local newspapers between 2005 and 2018, things have, to an extent, turned around. Reach PLC, the largest regional media publisher in the UK, recorded a significant 18% rise in traffic across its sites in March last year as people sought more localised information about COVID. As the pandemic has continued, our constricting worlds (lockdowns, no holidays, no unnecessary journeys), and national and regional COVID tier systems served to make local news even more valuable.
Mainstream media can often be criticised for skewing negative, but at this time of crisis, local radio, newspapers and websites deserve credit for the lengths to which they have gone to celebrate community initiatives and highlight local achievements. They want to share good news stories and shine a light on the people doing amazing things for their communities, with the BBC’s local radio ‘Make A Difference Bulletins’ a perfect example of how media outlets made a concerted effort to share uplifting news in challenging times.
Having previously worked at ‘big’ London agencies, I can exclusively reveal that local PR wasn’t always seen as the sexiest part of a comms brief. You’d make sure that media local to your client’s HQ got the press release you were sending out, but not much more than that. However, moving out of the London bubble, and working with clients who truly value community engagement and communications, has shown me the error of these ways.
It’s crucial for businesses to ensure that they’re doing whatever they can to have a positive impact in the communities where they operate. Whether it’s employment and job creation or giving back through charitable activities, it has never been more important to be a good neighbour. And there’s no doubt that when the smoke finally clears and we are through this crisis, the public will remember the businesses and the people who did right by their communities, and hold them in a higher regard.
I’m proud to have supported our clients’ sterling work in their communities. Parkdean Resorts donated supplies to local foodbanks up and down the country, and offered free accommodation during lockdown to NHS frontline workers, as well as hiring record numbers of seasonal staff coming out of lockdown, while Hawthorn’s Pub Partners, who pride themselves on serving their communities at the best of times, have really gone above and beyond, doing whatever they could, be that converting their pubs to community shops, delivering food to shielding regulars, clearing icy driveways during bad weather, or creating socially-distanced Santa’s grottos for children in care. These are businesses who understand that it’s always important to do good things locally, and realise that there’s no shame in shouting about what you’re doing, particularly at a time when the media wants to share these positive stories.
Referring to the Ayrshire Daily News’ much-retweeted Donald Trump headline, South Ayrshire Golf club owner loses 2020 presidential election, the BBC’s North America Editor, John Sopel, pointed out on the peerless Americast that no matter how big the news story, there’s always a local angle. However, if the pandemic has taught PR professionals one thing, it’s that local comms matters more than ever. Yes, it’s true that ‘All News is Local’, but let’s flip the script and embrace the fact that ‘All Local is News.’