Phil’s Forty, 35: Private practice

It started as a conversation about a commercial property firm agreeing a one-year lease with a business in Hull which needed a big industrial shed.

The usual questions followed – who’s the client? What do they do? Why do they need a big shed for a year?

CGI of Slipstream sculpture, designed by Richard Wilson, Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport.
CGI of Slipstream sculpture, designed by Richard Wilson, Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport.

The answers led us to Commercial Systems International, based at Marfleet, who were in the process of building the spectacular Slipstream sculpture designed by Richard Wilson to occupy Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport.

At more than 70 metres long and weighing 77 tonnes, Slipstream had to be moved, section by section, to somewhere enormous for preliminary assembly before it could be delivered. Even the shed on Sutton Fields Industrial Estate wasn’t really big enough but there was space to at least put together the 22 sections to create two halves, and to establish that they matched up nicely.

It was a great story which brought to life an otherwise mundane property piece, but that’s the way I’ve always approached my PR work. The key to any press release is to tell people why the story matters to them, and what difference it will make.

It doesn’t always work out that way, as the Editor of HULL IS THIS will testify, because some clients just want the story presented in its simplest form. That might be OK for some business media, but it won’t reach a wider audience. 

With any project I always think carefully about how far we can take it – it’s always satisfying to get a story into business news and general news, as we achieved with a press release for Golding Computer Services about their courses which help businesses achieve computerised accounting qualifications. That’s about as dry as it gets until you look at the clients who take up the training. 

Tree Fellas
Tree Fellas.

Tree Fellas, set up by a young couple who met growing up in care, is a remarkable business, and we’ve covered plenty more. The lovely people at Goldings understand completely that sometimes their story is best told by a client who has made great progress as a result of using their services.

Increasingly there are also opportunities to get business press releases into the culture and sports pages, usually with sponsorship deals but also because organisations in both sectors are eager to build links with the corporate world. My background, with 11 years spent working with major sports organisations and their blue-chip sponsors, enables me to help with that. A good example locally bundled all of this together and will feature in the next article as my all-time favourite project.

You also have to consider how to make your story appeal to different types of media, which means packaging the content in different ways – longer versions for magazines, shorter pieces for websites, hooks and teasers for Twitter, good pictures for all of those, filming opportunities for TV, a good variety of interesting voices for radio. 

If the initial story doesn’t appeal to the wider media that’s not necessarily the end of things. For various reasons you can have a great story that doesn’t make it until a news editor or business editor sees it somewhere else. It’s also the case that audiences don’t rely on – or even trust – traditional media as much as in the past.

Think about how you would research a business if you were interested in buying from them. You’d check their website and their social media. That’s why I always encourage clients to make their own media, whether it be a news section on the website, a strong social media presence or newsletters and brochures, whether in print or online. The key is to make sure everything is up to date, accurate and relevant. 

One of the first assignments I picked up after going freelance was to work with a former colleague on a review of all the communications tools used by the Football Association, from fliers promoting equality to England matchday programmes and the official website.

Effectively a top-to-bottom audit of communications content, it was a fantastic project, rewarding in so many ways, and triggered a whole new approach to the development of the FA’s web site and mobilisation of its media assets. Every business should do it.

Why bother? Because for most businesses reputation matters, and an effective PR strategy becomes a key part of business development. 

I operate across all sectors and, as a highly experienced journalist, I know how to research subjects to identify the best angles. I also bring clients together when appropriate, if I hear something from one client that might be of interest to another. Back in March just a few days before lockdown I joined a Zoom session with the Chamber of Commerce and HullBID in which Emma Hardy MP asked how businesses were coping with the early stages of the pandemic.

Gill Long, Cock of the Walk.

I’d earlier spoken to Gill Long at Cock of the Walk tailors and I passed on her frustrations that the shop’s normal workload had dried up and nobody they’d spoken to at the NHS seemed interested in their offer to make surgical gowns. Emma contacted Diana Johnson, and Diana spoke to the top brass at Hull Royal Infirmary. They were unaware of the offer but within 24 hours things were moving and Cock of the Walk ended up making more than 3,000 gowns for frontline health professionals across the region.

It was another great story which hit the papers, magazines, radio and TV and reached business and news audiences. Above all we helped Gill make a difference.

Phil Ascough

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.