USA Today – community is key

Account Director Thomas Mc Hugh shares some insight into community relations stories making US headlines.

I spent some time in Washington DC last week with a pharmaceutical client. It’s a fascinating place to be as a team of busy workers construct the staging for the presidential inauguration at Capitol Hill. Updates of Trumps cabinet and advisory team battle with an exciting NFL season for news coverage.

In the midst of this high-level paradigm shift in everything from international relations to the programme for Air Force One, I was most struck by Monday’s publication of USA Today. This national paper gave its key headlines to two community relations issues. One took the front cover headline. The second took the Money section cover headline.


Dakota Pipeline

I’ve been monitoring the issues around the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock for a long time now. The developer of a 1, 172 mile oil pipeline is at loggerheads with local native Indians around the construction of a pipeline near their reservation. There is concern that the pipeline could destroy local water supplies if it leaks. There is angst around the natural heritage of the area. #NODAPL been used almost 500,000 times on Instagram. Artists, celebrities, environmentalists and numerous others have rallied around the cause. Police have been deployed in heavy duty riot gear and there have been unsavoury altercations.

I would suggest that had the pipeline developer engaged proactively from the outset this situation could have been avoided. The company is losing millions each day the project is delayed. One of the calls from activists is for an environmental impact assessment. I would suggest that this should have been present from the outset. The community should have been engaged around issues of concern. Reassurances and additional measures to allay fears could have been built into the environmental assessment, construction programme and subsequent operation and maintenance plan. Ultimately, the route could even have been modified as a final gesture.

That this issue has become worthy of intervention from President Obama and the main headline in USA Today serves to underline the ramifications of failed stakeholder engagement.

Facebook to invest in social housing

In the wake of Brexit, the disconnect between the views of the people and those of the majority of businesses has become quite marked. There is much talk of how to build a bridge between the two. Many are drawing parallels to the statement that has just been made in the US Presidential election.

In this context, it is fascinating to see Facebook set to invest $20 million in a local social housing scheme in its back yard. It is partnering with a coalition of local community groups. The programme is tied to the construction of Facebook’s new Frank Gehry designed 513,000 square foot campus. It is clear that Facebook now sees the benefits both to the communities in which they operate and their own reputation as a socially responsible company.

In terms of the USA Today editorial, what happens next is fascinating: a quote from the community rather than the corporate.

“I laud Facebook and am glad they’re doing something. But we’ve reached out to all businesses in the community over the years. There needs to be education among them about housing.” Tameeka Bennett – Youth United for Action in East Palo Alto.

Counter Context appoints senior energy sector specialist

Counter Context is looking to increase its foothold in the renewable energy industries after appointing a leading senior stakeholder and communications specialist.

Emily Marshall joins the northern-based communications company as Associate Director. Emily is an experienced stakeholder and communications manager having worked in-house at off-shore wind specialists DONG Energy and SunEdison, the world’s largest renewable energy company.

Through her role at DONG Energy, Emily led the stakeholder management and consultation for some of the world’s largest off-shore wind farms. Following a move to the solar energy sector, she led Sun Edison’s UK communications programme and public affairs strategy.

Emily will be applying her wealth of experience to helping shape business development plans at Counter Context and expanding the company’s presence in the south of the UK.

She joins during what is set to be Counter Context’s most profitable year on record and the announcement of her appointment comes just a month after the company increased its northern footprint by opening a new office in Manchester.

Counter Context operates primarily within the built environment, offering consultation, engagement and promotional services on developments including Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). Clients include DONG Energy and The National Grid and the company has now set its sights on further expansion within the arena of renewable energy.

Emily commented: “I am thrilled to be joining such a dynamic and ambitious company. Counter Context has very impressive clients and interesting projects within their portfolio. I am looking forward to getting involved with this existing work and to contributing to the wider business development goals.”

Alexis Krachai, Managing Director of Counter Context added: “Emily is already proving to be a real asset to our team. She brings industry knowledge, expertise and contacts, as well as a unique perspective as somebody who was once a client of Counter Context. This gives us a distinct and interesting advantage.

“We have some exciting plans for 2017 and I am delighted that Emily has joined us at such a significant time when her input will be integral to the future of the company.”

For more information on the consultation, engagement and promotional services offered by Counter Context telephone (0114) 252 1170, visit or follow the company on Twitter, @countercontext.

Waiting for the Sun

On Wednesday morning the rain came down in sheets. The grounds team used thermal heaters to dry the pitch of the Aviva in Dublin prior to a brutal Ireland and All Blacks clash. Upstairs some 200+ expectant people gathered for the first large scale solar PV conference in Ireland.

Presentations and conversations over coffee told a story of potential. Some 4GW are in stages of planning or consented. 2GW may be truly viable. As one attendee keenly showed me on his phone, it is already common to see Eirgrid facilitating up to 39% renewable power on their distribution network.

As ever, subsidy would quicken the pace. Something similar to phased rounds of CfD similar to the UK was widely accepted as a sensible approach. Onshore wind has had something of a community relations stutter of late. This may help crystalise support for solar as a critical component in any secure energy mix.

As the industry reacts it must be mature beyond its years. A cynical race to max out the market will not be well regarded by communities or politicians. Clear, simple messaging and sincere stakeholder engagement will be critical to retain long term support. In the first instance, all tiers and segments of the stakeholder matrix will need education. They will not expect the industry to be a panacea for all ails but they will absolutely expect to be accorded the respect they deserve.

We’re proud to be collaborating with the ISEA and other industry representatives to help ensure that stakeholder engagement lessons are shared and considered.

On Saturday the Aviva was filled with 52,000 fans and one of the greatest sporting spectacles of the winter. There were some questionable tackles. But the sun came out.

Autumn Statement Highlights

On Wednesday 23 November, Phillip Hammond delivered his Autumn Statement. Our Associate Director Emily Marshall explores and interprets some of the details and main points to consider. 

In what was the Chancellor’s last Autumn Statement, it’s all about #Jams and Britain’s Brexit Big Black Hole. Whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a sweet tooth or interest in confectionary, we won’t know. Perhaps he needs a sugar boost to rebalance what surely would have been a dip in blood pressure when borrowing an extra £122bn in the wake of the referendum result.

Boosting spending on infrastructure and productivity as well as the string of small measures to help ‘Jams’ were key takeaways from yesterday’s Autumn Statement.

Since the 1980s, public investment in infrastructure in advanced nations has gone from 4% to 3% of GDP. Today, the UK Government announced a new national productivity investment fund worth £23bn to focus on innovation and infrastructure. The figure was surprisingly lower than expected owing to the somewhat enormous budget deficit but still shows a clear commitment to UK infrastructure investment in response to boosting economic growth.

Indeed, the trend in infrastructure investment to boost national economies can be seen across the world. In the US this phenomenon has a name: ‘The Trump Factor’, and means using infrastructure to rebuild your investments. It is a populist measure that President Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May share: rebuilding the country’s infrastructure with deficit spending that will (according to John Maynard Keynes) produce a multiplier effect on growth. But today’s budget presented by Phillip Hammond showed a more cautious boost than expected. In his Autumn Statement, Hammond has committed to:

  • £23bn to be spent on innovation and infrastructure over the next five years
  • A new £2.3bn Housing Infrastructure Fund for up to 100,000 new homes in high demand areas
  • £1.4bn to deliver 40,000 extra affordable homes
  • An extra £1.1bn invested in English transport networks, including rail networks
  • £220m to reduce traffic congestion (‘jams’)
  • £110m for East West Rail and commitment to deliver Oxford to Cambridge Expressway
  • More than £1bn for digital infrastructure
  • Investment in R&D to rise by £2bn a year by 2020.
  • Mr Hammond stated he will be prioritising high-value investment in infrastructure and has written to the National Infrastructure Commission asking for proposals for spending in the next decade.

This is still good news for sectors in the built environment amidst difficult times, particularly following uncertainty in the wake of Brexit and waning investor confidence. With a series of planned infrastructure investments ready to be deployed, these industries and the supply chain of services, consultants and advisors who support them will need to act quickly out of the starting blocks.

With this burst however, we should be prepared to meet the usual challenges. Infrastructure projects are large and capital intensive, with significant upfront costs and benefits that start to be seen over the longer term spanning several politicians’ professional lifetimes and being met with the public’s concern of: ‘What’s in it for me?’.

Both nationally and locally, new infrastructure projects are contentious. We may all see the demand but such economic arguments for new infrastructure are often met with populist concerns, which need to be carefully and effectively considered.

An anti-climax could perhaps be felt for the Northern Powerhouse, given the positive attention it has received from Theresa May and her Government recently. In his brief address to northern businesses, Hammond stated that for too long investment has been focused on London and that “Government will publish a strategy to address this”. He was firmer however in city regions getting individual budget powers in the Government’s approach to devolution.

In summary, whilst Brexit’s Big Black Hole has rather dampened the size of new investments, there is now the mood for greater infrastructure investment and we should all seize this opportunity.

Industrial Strategy – what does it look like and how can businesses benefit?

The Counter Context team pays a keen interest in the latest political thought and signal from Westminster and we weren’t left waiting long for a clear indication from Theresa May’s new administration. Within days the new PM had given a speech pledging to bring back industrial strategy and had accordingly formed a new government department – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Although there hasn’t been a clear explanation of how this government’s industrial strategy will look, it is likely to involve raising the UK’s productivity performance, committing to infrastructure projects, housebuilding and developing regional policy.

Some may be considering whether industrial strategy is substantial economic policy or ideological rhetoric. However, from our perspective wherever there is a political signal from the Government there is opportunity for businesses. Making full use of these opportunities requires astute positioning and strategic communication.

In short, the Government has publicly committed to a new industrial strategy. Now is the chance for members of the business community to show that they fit the bill. To do this they must consider a number of key characteristics of industrial strategy.

Support for Regional Development

A key aspect of May’s proposed industrial strategy is to rebalance the economy geographically. Connected with other government initiatives, such as the Northern Powerhouse, businesses must demonstrate a commitment to contributing to growth across the country, and recognise that regional strategies must reflect regional strengths.

Asset Based

For many, government talk of industry will conjure up connotations of manufacturing and factories. Whilst this is still central to the economy, industrial strategy in the 21st century must consider all types of new industry, and therefore all types of assets. These might be physical, intellectual, regional or natural, and may be utilised in different ways. It is worth considering the specialist knowledge, technology, and property that differentiates businesses and sectors.

Focused on Innovation and High Growth Potential

Modern industrial strategy has to be interlinked with promoting innovation and will be targeted at sectors with high-growth potential. Demonstrating that a business is looking to innovate and that they operate in a sector with great potential makes them a much more attractive prospect. Employment and investment statistics will likely be key measures of the effectiveness of industrial strategy. A commitment to increasing these will be a popular move.

Although only scratching the service, I hope this blog provides insight into how an awareness of political trends and appetites, coupled with subtle changes in positioning and communication, allows pro-active members of the business community to capitalise on government policy and rhetoric.

We’d love to discuss this further. If you’re interested in talking about industrial strategy, and how a communications strategy could help you benefit from it, please get in touch. 

Iconic elephant won’t be saying goodbye to the city centre…

One of the most iconic members of the Herd will be making a welcome return to Sheffield after its new owners pledged to display it in the city centre.

The AM elephant, which was sponsored and signed by Sheffield legends the Arctic Monkeys, was bought at auction last week by Counter Context and sister company, Quality Context. The local companies have committed to returning AM to the city centre in the hope it will attract visitors to Sheffield and raise awareness of The Children’s Hospital Charity.

Originally based outside Sheffield Town Hall, AM was one of the most popular sculptures on the trail, which was organised by the charity and Wild in Art. The 6ft sculpture is now destined for a new home in the Winter Gardens, where local people and tourists alike can visit it for many years to come.

As committed supporters of The Children’s Hospital Charity, Counter Context and Quality Context also sponsored two of the Herd’s elephants along with one of the £25,000 rooms in the hospital’s new wing, due to be opened soon. Alexis and Kate Krachai, owners of the two companies respectively, set their sights on AM after first seeing it at a preview event. Kate explained,

“We loved AM from day one. It represents two of the city’s most important cultural assets; the Arctic Monkeys and the fantastic legacy of the Herd. As local companies, we want to celebrate everything that makes our city great and this elephant does just that.”

Alexis added, “Kate and I felt strongly that it wouldn’t be right to keep AM tucked away. The city loved this elephant and the city deserves to see and enjoy it. We want to give visitors an opportunity to make a donation when taking photos with the elephant, raising vital funds for this important charity. We are also thinking about the local visitor economy – we very much hope that people will continue visiting Sheffield to see AM.”

Rebecca Staden, Fundraising Manager at The Children’s Hospital Charity said: “The Herd of Sheffield was a huge collaboration of companies, artists, schools and individuals from across Sheffield, all working together to create something special for the city and to fund lifesaving equipment at Sheffield Children’s Hospital. I am absolutely delighted that AM is returning to the city as a legacy to the project. Huge thanks go to Counter Context and Quality Context for their generosity and for publicly exhibiting the elephant for the whole city to continue to enjoy.”

Counter Context and Quality Context are working closely with Sheffield City Council and The Children’s Hospital Charity to arrange the move and it is hoped that AM will be on display in the Winter Gardens within the next month.

Counter Context constructs new network across the Pennines

Last October we celebrated the official launch of our new Manchester office. This marked a really significant and exciting point for Counter Context and as such, we wanted to shout about it! Here’s our latest news release, if you’d like any more information on this story please contact me on

Leading communications company Counter Context has strengthened its standing in the north of England, opening an office in the heart of Manchester’s business district.

As specialists within the built environment, Sheffield-born Counter Context celebrated the opening of its Lloyd Street office with top property professionals at a launch on 6 October. The expansion comes as a result of increased demand for the company’s services in the region.

Counter Context operates within a niche area of PR and communications; building understanding and support for large-scale and often challenging commercial and residential developments, transport schemes and energy infrastructure projects.

The company already boasts an impressive track record in the North West which has included work for The Cooperative Group, Manchester City Council, Bruntwood, Transport for Greater Manchester, Salford City College and CBRE Global Investors. The team is currently supporting consultation around the high profile St. Michael’s development, the latest venture by former United player, Gary Neville.

Counter Context was founded over 22 years ago in Sheffield and remains primarily focussed on the north of the country. Account Director, Harriet Knowles has led on the company’s expansion into Manchester. She said,

“We are extremely excited about our new home here in the North West. Whilst we’ve worked with clients over the Pennines for a number of years, we wanted to be better integrated within the business community; increasing our profile and bringing us closer to our clients.

“Manchester is a fantastic city with a rapidly changing skyline and a lot of exciting ideas in the pipeline. Our understanding of policy, planning, messaging and engagement puts us in a strong position to support the city’s developments in moving forward.”

Counter Context’s Manchester office is located in Lloyd House, 18 Lloyd Street, Manchester M2 5WA.

For more information on the consultation, engagement and promotional services provided, telephone 0161 669 5035, visit or follow the company on Twitter, @countercontext.

Big steps for offshore wind in the US

2016 has been a big year for renewable energy in the US. Increases in onshore wind and solar power have accounted for significant growth in the amount of renewable energy supplied to the grid. Studies predict that the US can generate most of its electricity from renewable energy by 2050.

Given our experience in working with the world leaders in the offshore wind industry, DONG Energy, we are particularly interested in the Massachusetts Energy Bill, adopted by the state earlier this month. The overall ambition of the bill is to reduce the state’s over-reliance on natural gas, a situation that can increasingly leave states exposed in terms of supply security, energy prices and carbon pollution. One mandate included in the bill is that utilities must purchase 1600MW of offshore wind power and that by 2027 utilities have to line up contracts for offshore wind.

Historically, the US has struggled to establish and progress an offshore wind industry due to local resistance, high capital costs and an uncertain regulatory climate. However, with the introduction of the Massachusetts Energy Bill, and the country’s first offshore wind farm – Block Island Wind Farm – about to launch into operations, we are excited at the prospect of the offshore wind industry contributing significantly to the US’ high ambitions for renewable energy.

Counter Context surround landmark Sheffield development

This month the public was given an exciting glimpse into the future of the old NUM building, when the surrounding hoardings revealing its new occupants, were installed.

Popular bar and restaurant chain Pitcher and Piano and professional services firm Grant Thornton are two of the confirmed occupants whose branding appears on the hoardings. Another national name is hoped to be released soon by the developers, Quest Property.

Counter Context designed the hoardings as part of our remit to showcase the refurbishment of this iconic Sheffield building. In addition to providing wider PR support, we have also created the building’s official logo, featuring its new name: 1 Holly Street.

The hoardings and the logo were designed to complement the surroundings of the building and remain sensitive to its heritage, whilst increasing public interest and showcasing the high level of investment this development is bringing into Sheffield.

Account Manager, Lucy Brown explains “Counter Context is delighted to be working on this landmark development for the city centre.

“Our client has designed an exciting plan to re-energise this important building, which has stood empty for over 25 years. Not just in terms of what it will add to Sheffield’s professional and leisure landscape, but also the jobs it will create along the way; from construction through to the new businesses arriving in our city. Our PR and creative support has been designed to reflect this positive and exciting story”

To find out how we can make your development the place on everyone’s lips, get in touch.

Manchester’s building boom: Engagement is key

Account Director, Harriet Knowles, was recently invited to provide her expert opinion on the transformation of Manchester’s skyline, for the Manchester Evening News’ business supplement. In her editorial, below, she explains why engaging with the affected community from an early stage can determine the success of a development. 

A number of eye-catching news headlines in recent months have shone the spotlight on Manchester’s flurry of development activity. In April, the MEN reported that at least 15 buildings 30 storeys or more are planned for the city centre.

This building boom is not only transforming the city skyline. The people of Manchester are thinking differently about their city. The construction of a new building signifies Manchester’s economic growth. New development can reinvigorate areas that have previously felt unloved and create new places that inspire pride. Spinningfields is a great example of this – it is not just a collection of new buildings but a destination.

Building on such scale does, inevitably, present difficulties. It is rare to walk, never mind drive, the streets of the city centre without encountering a diversion or delay caused by a construction project. For those who work or live in the city centre, a major building scheme on the doorstep can be a source of understandable frustration.
Physical disruption isn’t the only issue. Rapid change can make inhabitants feel their city is altering around them in ways they have no control over.

I work with developers to help engage and inform local communities in the early stages of planning, and can say with confidence that this involvement often determines the overall success of a development.

Our most effective projects develop long term links with existing communities, whose role as ‘guardians’ of an area’s unique character is encouraged by the developer. The result? Their scheme develops a heart, in addition to a sparkling new facade.