PR and proud

This month we contributed to Sheffield Telegraph’s quarterly business review. We wrote about PR ; exploring what it actually means to offer ‘public relations’ as a service, and what businesses can expect from good PR representation. 

Counter Context is a communications company, working in the UK and beyond for over 20 years. Only very recently have we started referring to ourselves as a PR company. Why the sudden change?

We have seen how the term PR has become devalued by many and associated with distrust of government and big business. Ask most people in the street to describe PR and they will tell you it likely involves flashy events, spin, disingenuous news stories and publicity stunts. Ask most companies and they regard PR as the need to churn out endless press releases.

Despite this, we have started to use the term PR to describe our work. The industry needs to go back to the true meaning of the phrase – public relations.

We help our clients to achieve success through building genuine and mutually beneficial relationships. Our work is founded on the belief that honest, open and two-way communication helps to build understanding, trust and support in ideas, projects and organisations.

Our work does often involve organising events, writing a press release or doing something fun to catch people’s attention. Our focus is on informing and building understanding, not tricking or distracting the public. PR changes perspectives, but not through manipulation of the truth or twisting the facts.

A good PR company will not tell you to lie, ask you to be something you are not or cover up a crisis.  A good PR company will advise you to connect with your stakeholders; the people who influence and who are influenced by your business. They will advise you to find out what your stakeholders want and the impact that your business may have on them.

Your actions will not always meet with stakeholder approval. This will inevitably risk relations with your customers, employees, suppliers, investors and the wider public. A good PR company will help you to explain your actions in an honest and sincere way and they will help you to rebuild and strengthen relations with the public.

PR is about telling positive stories. PR is not about covering up the bad and hoping people do not notice.

We support clients delivering massive commercial and infrastructure developments. Companies that are disrupting journeys, making noise and changing skylines. Inevitably this will upset some people. What we do is work directly with the public to understand their worries and, in turn, to help them understand the work of our clients.

We find that encouraging conversations rather than monologues builds trust, and with trust often comes support.


Counter Context sponsors joint working event for the North

Our latest press release announces Counter Context’s sponsorship of the upcoming pro-manchester Transport and Infrastructure Pan North Lunch.

Communications and public affairs company, Counter Context, is the headline sponsor of an exclusive roundtable discussion between leading figures from the North of England, working to deliver strategic policy and development in the North.

The Transport and Infrastructure Pan North Lunch, which takes place on 25 April, is being organised and hosted by pro-manchester, the North West’s largest business development organisation. During this invite-only event, leading figures in the North will debate opportunities for, and potential constraints to, achieving effective joint working.

Based across Sheffield and Manchester and operating primarily within the built environment, infrastructure and transport networks, Counter Context has a vested interest in collaborative working across the North. As founding members of pro-manchester’s Transport and Infrastructure Sector Group, the communications company regularly contributes to knowledge sharing amongst sector peers, with a view to improving connectivity in this part of the country.

Their participation at this event will ensure that Sheffield City Region, a major gateway to the Northern Powerhouse is represented and considered in the debate. Alexis Krachai, Managing Director of Counter Context, comments:

“We are privileged to have offices in two exciting and dynamic northern cities and we have seen first-hand what collaboration across the Pennines can do. Our sponsorship of the Pan North Lunch demonstrates a commitment to supporting and promoting growth in Northern England, and making sure that the key cities pull together to offer first class connectivity.

“Both Sheffield City Region and Manchester have huge potential in what they can bring to the Northern Powerhouse agenda and I look forward to sharing thoughts and ideas, as well as concerns at this important event.”

The aim of pro-manchester is to produce a summary paper from the discussion which will then be used to influence and shape a future event, designed to disseminate the findings to a wider audience.

The Transport and Infrastructure Pan North Lunch will take place on 25 April in Manchester. Whilst it is an invite-only event, you can find out more information and register your interest for follow-up events, here:

Fixing the broken housing market: what are the asks and offers in the Government’s plans?

This week, Counter Context attended Housing North West, an event hosted by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). Housing is a hot topic and we were keen to hear the perspectives of both the public and private sectors to find out what specific challenges are being faced in the North West, and how they are working to ‘fix’ the housing market. Account Manager Lucy Brown shares her thoughts from the day.

It is well known and understood that the housing market in the UK is, to use Theresa May’s description, ‘broken’. The Housing White Paper, released earlier this year, outlines the Government’s plans to fix it. Priorities include the right type of homes being built, that homes are built faster, that the market becomes more diversified and people are helped now.

Steve Quartermain, Director and Chief Planner at the Department for Communities and Local Government, suggested it is not just about the numbers but also about the affordability. He stressed the importance of the public and private sector working together to achieve both of these. Within the White Paper, which is currently in its consultation period, there are offers for local authorities, for the industry and for local people but it also includes asks to improve the numbers as well as the affordability.

Specifically, for the industry, The White Paper proposes offers including:

  • A better-resourced system
  • Further process improvements (e.g. conditions)
  • Partnering with small/medium firms and promote modern methods of construction

Some of its asks include:

  • Building more homes, quickly
  • Investment in research and skills
  • Delivery of the infrastructure needed

Another of its asks is for developers to engage with communities. We know first-hand the importance of working with communities to glean their views on the look and location of a development.

The White Paper emphasises that local communities should influence the look and location of homes built near to them and ensure that local needs are met.

Counter Context is well positioned to work with both communities and developers to bring forward development. To find out more about our experience in this area, read about our work or get in touch.

Leigh Bramall to join Counter Context

Leigh Bramall, former deputy leader of Sheffield City Council is joining Counter Context’s growing team of communications and public affairs professionals.

Leigh, who has a background in public relations, decided to step down from his role in politics to pursue a career in communications. His love of Sheffield and his ambition to promote growth and investment in the city means that Counter Context is a natural fit, being a Sheffield born and bred company. Our appointment of Leigh as a Director is another step in the company’s strategic business plan designed to grow the company and create more jobs in the city.

During his six years in Cabinet including two years as deputy leader, Leigh led the Business and Economy portfolio working to bring jobs and investment to the city. He has led a number of key achievements working with Councillor Julie Dore, the Leader of the Council, including securing the largest Chinese investment deal of any city outside London, the development of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District and leading the campaign to establish Sheffield as the UK’s Outdoor City.

Counter Context’s Managing Director, Alexis Krachai, said:

“We have known Leigh for a number of years and have seen from the great work he has done that he is as passionate about the city as we are.

“We are looking forward to welcoming Leigh to Counter Context where I am confident he will make a real contribution to the growth of our company. And, whilst he is stepping down from politics this does not mean he can no longer contribute to the success of our city and the wider region.

“Leigh has extensive experience in communications and public relations. This, combined with his knowledge and commitment to Sheffield, means he will continue to have a positive impact on the city region as part of the Counter Context team.”

Leigh resigned from his position as deputy leader of Sheffield City Council on 21 March 2017, he also stepped down as ward councillor for the Southey area of Sheffield. He will begin his new role as a Director at Counter Context in April. On beginning his new job, Leigh commented:

“I am moving to a fantastic Sheffield company and feel this is a great opportunity for me to start a new chapter in my professional career which also allows me to stay in Sheffield, the city that I love.”

In defence of Council leaders in Cannes

Last week 25,000 investors and property developers travelled to Cannes in France. They were there to discuss where to invest money to generate jobs and economic growth. They listened to cities and regions who need to attract their investment.

From Bangalore to Budapest, from Copenhagen to Cape Town. Every major city and region on earth was there promoting what they have to offer to investors. Seminars, workshops and, yes, champagne receptions defined five days of discussion and networking.

In recent years Council leaders and business leaders from our region have travelled to be part of this debate. This year Counter Context assembled the largest ever delegation of businesses who were sponsoring our delegation. We promoted over £1bn of investment opportunities. Unfortunately, our political leaders were thin on the ground.

Why were they not there? They have busy schedules, they have responsibilities back home. These are all reasonable explanations. There is also the suspicion they fear being photographed sipping champagne at drinks receptions. This is not an unreasonable anxiety. Voters back home are angry. Many will see a trip to Cannes as a gross waste of public money.

Going to Cannes is anything but a waste of money. Being part of this global network matters. Attracting investment is like finding a job. You cannot sit at home hoping the phone will ring, you need to get out there. You need to have those conversations that turn into big deals. Deals like the multimillion pound investments recently announced by McLaren and Boeing. Our politicians play an incredibly important role in these conversations. They give confidence to investors.

By 2020 our town halls will receive no central grant from Whitehall to fund Council services. This means huge changes to how we fund the services we all rely on. The gap needs to be filled by Business Rates – the tax paid by businesses and investors. Our politicians need to be meeting, talking to and sipping champagne with these investors to show them what we have to offer and to attract them to our region.

There will be many more events that afford valuable opportunities for Sheffield. We need to support our politicians and allow them to do their jobs without the fear of public backlash.

It may not make for a great photograph now but it will fund essential services in the future.

Council budget cuts mean we need to be ambitious.

After councils throughout the country announced an increase in council tax, Alexis Krachai argues that ambition, jobs and investment are the answer.

Not long ago everyone was talking about austerity. Not anymore. The focus is on Brexit, Trump and fake news. Make no mistake though, budgets are still being cut; left, right and centre.

It is rare that town hall bosses are applauded but they have had to handle massive budget cuts over the last seven years. In each year, they have managed to balance what they get and what they spend. That is not an easy task when there is increasing pressure on Council coffers.

The pressure is only increasing. Next year the Council is going to have to find an extra £40million to balance the books. We need to reverse this trend. How can Council budgets can grow? What do we need to do to spend more money on essential services that benefit everyone in the city?

The answer is simple. We need to create new jobs and help businesses to invest. The more jobs created, the more companies that grow, the more money the Council receives. By 2020 all of the money received from businesses will be spent by our Council rather than by officials in Whitehall. That’s good news for our economy and good news for the city. Being in control of what we spend will help Sheffield to become more successful.

What does this mean in reality? We need to attract businesses to invest in Sheffield. The news that the supercar company McLaren is coming to town is terrific. We need to be equally welcoming to companies who want to bring their money and jobs to any part of Sheffield. Nowadays companies can invest anywhere they want to; Sheffield needs to be open for business.

That does not mean every business should be allowed to do what they want and build where they want. The Council has a planning department that is well known for making developers work hard to meet the standards the city expects. These standards will not slip but it is inevitable that Council bosses will need to think about how new developments can help fund essential services.

We live in challenging times. We need more and more money to fund services that benefit a population that is growing older. The government is placing more pressure on Councils to do more with less. There is only one solution – jobs, jobs, jobs.

Key messages from the NSIPs Forum 2017

The 5th Annual National Significant Infrastructure Projects Forum 2017 was attended by May Lester, Emily Marshall, Sam Rowe and Tom Mothersole. Here, May shares some key insights from the day.

This year’s event began with a resonating introduction from Gideon Amos OBE, National Planning Advisor for GL Hearn, who gave a succinct overview of the birth of the Planning Act 2008 (no mean feat!). His calm reflection that back in the early 2000s, infrastructure was being attacked from all sides by climate change, economic downturns and mass uncertainty, drew some unspoken comparisons to the ambiguity faced by many of us across the world today.

There was a huge amount of information shared on the day, and here I’ve tried to summarise the three key messages that we took away…

There are busy times ahead

Simone Wilding, Head of Major Casework for the Planning Inspectorate, explained that in the next few years, there are the highest number of applications predicted for submission to PINS. In summary, energy project applications are staying steady (19 applications predicted over the next two years), whereas transport project applications are increasing (44 predicted over the same timeframe). Simone’s statistics were echoed by Angus Walker, Partner at Bircham Dyson Bell, who said that energy projects were currently influenced more by finances than the planning process itself. He advised that the Government would do well to look at improving this, as it will be an ever-increasing need. The Brexit-shaped elephant in the room was addressed by our very own Emily Marshall towards the end of the day, the topic of which was received with relief and the expected shrugs of shoulders.

The increase in applications, and the subsequent workload of PINS, now means that it’s more important than ever to create a watertight DCO from the get-go.

 Preparation is key

Almost every speaker shared personal experiences of what had gone well and what had gone very wrong during their careers in planning, consultations and DCO submissions. The clear message was that preparation is everything to a successful pre-application process. A few ‘lessons learned’ points included:

  • Ensure consistency across documentation
  • Engage with local authorities as soon as possible
  • Refer to PINS advice notes; these are your ‘instruction manual’
  • The more information you exchange with stakeholders at consultation stage, the more detailed answers and feedback you will get in response – risk can therefore be managed more robustly
  • Liaise with landowners early on in the process, and understand there will be specific topics they want to discuss
  • Get organised! Have the right team for the job
  • Consider elements such as landscape, tourism and heritage in the early stages, as this will secure mitigation and legacy – improving the chances of success overall

For me, most prominent was to ensure that you’ve identified what you’re trying to achieve; what is your project? Build your consultation process around this, not the other way around.

 They don’t believe you

Rhion Jones, Institute Director and Associate at The Consultation Institute completed the day by making what could have been deemed a hugely negative statement, the fact that, unfortunately, people no longer believe large companies during consultations. He expanded on this by defining ‘post-truth’ (Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016) – Relating to or demoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Rather than dwelling on this as a problem, Rhion summarised with this uplifting, and seemingly simple solution: public dialogue must be genuine.

This is certainly something I have experienced on projects I’ve worked on at Counter Context, in that having transparent, real conversations with stakeholders is the best platform on which both parties can understand one another, and move forward with a mutual understanding and respect.

We look forward to applying the knowledge and insights taken away from the NSIPs Forum 2017 in order to benefit our clients and the ultimate success of their projects. If you’d like any further information about this event, please contact me on

Housing issues are deep in the British psyche

Our MD Alexis responds to the long-awaited housing white paper ‘Fixing our broken housing market’, released by the Government on 7 February 2017.

The housing market is broken. We are not building enough homes and for too many a house is unaffordable. This tail of doom and gloom was at the heart of a document released last week by the government. Since then hundreds, if not thousands of articles have been written about the underlying problems with the UK housing market. Do not worry, this is not another one.

Us Brits like to talk about houses; where we live, where we want to live. How much our house was, is and might be worth. Whether we prefer Sarah Beeny or Kevin McCloud on TV. There is something deep in the British psyche that obsesses about bricks and mortar. Perhaps it all stems from the old maxim “An Englishman’s home is his castle”?

The debate about new housing is equally fraught. In one corner, we have developers and their advisors focussed on the intricacies of UK planning law. Figuring out what you can build, and where, is hugely complex. In the other corner, you have what many regard, often unfairly, to be NIMBYs. People anxious about the impact new housing might have on local roads, schools and greenspaces.

When these competing interests meet the following usually occurs. There is argument, distress and delay. Some houses do not get built, some do. Either way the process is often long and drawn out. It costs developers time and money and it causes anxiety and distress in communities.

What can we do about this in Sheffield? Firstly, it means recognising that lower prices means building more homes. We are lucky to have innovative developers working in the city centre, but what they do cannot be the only solution. Many of us vote with our feet by heading out to the suburbs as we grow older and our families grow larger. This stampede means building on greenspaces and occasionally, where necessary, the Green Belt.

Having a debate about difficult decisions will be necessary. We need a debate that does not involve opposing every development, blaming the Town Hall or treating everyone as a NIMBY. Sheffielders are renowned for being straight talking. We need to be straight about housing. We need more homes and we need them now. If you are not persuaded look in the window of your local estate agent; the price is only going in one direction. It might feel good now but it will only feel worse for our children.

McLaren to accelerate growth of South Yorkshire’s AMID

McLaren has announced it will open a £50 million supercar facility at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). Our MD Alexis shares his perspective on why this is a big win for South Yorkshire and an example of what can be achieved through partnership working. 

I am massively unlikely to ever buy a McLaren car. I have never sat in one. Why then am I excited about the news that the supercar manufacturer is going to open new facilities in Sheffield and Rotherham?

Reputations matter. The McLaren brand is renowned around the world for true excellence in engineering. Their research and development push the limits of what humans can do on four wheels. Their arrival in South Yorkshire will almost certainly attract additional companies looking to supply the new factory. Their new facility will provide further reason for South Yorkshire to be on the map for those investing and interested in advanced manufacturing.

Domain expertise matters. The ability to specialise in a specific area of the economy will be critical for cities and regions looking to compete successfully. Over the last couple of decades the Local Authorities in Sheffield and Rotherham, the University of Sheffield and blue chip businesses have been quietly building the world-class Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (AMID). Their foresight is paying off. Today’s news will likely be the first in a number of high-profile investments.

Relationships matter. AMID shows that it is possible for Local Authorities to collaborate. Rotherham and Sheffield have been known to compete for investment. Competition is healthy but it can quickly become corrosive. Today’s announcement shows what can be achieved when you work together. The Local Enterprise Partnership has played a significant role in making this happen, bringing our city region together and putting us on the map – huge thanks should go out to them. Congratulations all round are deserved.