Wilson Hartnell has been at the forefront of PR in Ireland for half a century. Michael Cullen examines its past, present and future hopes
Inquisitive. Inventive. Intelligent. Sharon Murphy believes they are the three attributes that go right to the core of Wilson Hartnell’s DNA, and the approach to creative communications of Ireland’s longest-running PR agency, which is currently celebrating 50 years in business. Murphy, a native of Cork, has worked at WH for 22 years, 17 years of which she spent as the agency’s head of consumer.
Each of these attributes stem from a passion for flair and creativity, as well as a care for the impact of the work WH develops and delivers for its clients. “The relationship between people and brands has been transformed by the rapid rate of change,” Murphy said. “We’ve seen seismic shifts in culture, global uncertainty and by technology and the implications it has had on behaviour.”
Expectations for business and brands have heightened. It is no longer enough to mirror cultural trends to build and maintain stakeholder and consumer relationships – they need to positively impact people and the planet. Brands must be inspirational not aspirational, eschew assertion for authenticity, focus on conscious rather than conspicuous consumption, seek equity not just equality.
Brands need to ditch exclusivity for inclusivity.
Murphy says the WH philosophy has always been about driving value and growth for clients, be it in building brands, protecting reputations and earning attention and influence through creative storytelling underpinned by insight. However, the reality of storytelling today, unlike when PR was first pioneered by Ed Bernays in 1920s’ America, is informed by data and fuelled by tech.
Andrew Porter fronted Rugby Players Ireland’s mental health campaign: ‘It’s ok not to be ok’.
Last year, WH appointed Sarah O’Connor as deputy MD to work alongside Murphy. O’Connor started out as a solicitor in corporate law with Arthur Cox before joining WH six years ago to head up its sports marketing division. She was previously in charge of the Sports Federation of Ireland (FIS). She also chaired BoardMatch Ireland and is on the board of Golf Ireland.
What does O’Connor consider key to being an effective PR person? She lists a number of attributes, some of which are of no surprise, like being able to communicate clearly. She also places a strong onus on sound judgement and counselling, which come with intelligence and experience. PR people must be diplomatic and capable of bringing others along with them – a sort of mediator.
O’Connor believes the days when PR was seen as a form of spin-doctoring are largely gone. Most people in the business avoid ‘spin’ as it’s seen as lessening trust and integrity. Trust is essential across the board and efforts at hiding issues are counterproductive. The business may have struggled in terms of its image, yet the irony is that PR people are hired all the time as image builders.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, PR’s contribution to the Irish economy was valued at €1.2 billion, a figure considered to being on the conservative side. The Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) released census details last year which showed a strong female bias, with women comprising 69 per cent of professionals in the business – and WH’s set-up would comply with the trend.
It is often suggested that women are more cut out for a career in public relations. It is said they have a better sense of attention to detail and an insight which men lack. Other people deny it has anything to do with gender and point to PR being a meritocracy, favouring the most able. Either way, it is evident that many of the top agencies in Ireland today are run by women.
It was back in 1973 that Wilson Hartnell group chairman Michael Maughan saw a demand for PR services emerging and wanted to capitalise on the potential. He set up Wilson Hartnell Public Relations, or WHPR for short. WHPR soon merged with Michael O’Reilly’s PR business and became known as Wilson Hartnell O’Reilly. It later demerged and became WHPR again.
Sharon Murphy, CEO and Roddy Guiney, chairman, Wilson Hartnell
Based in Leeson Park, WHPR was first managed by Brian Keogh, whose background was in magazine publishing. He headhunted Mary Finan, who had worked in Kennys and Peter Owens, when PR was in its infancy. Finan was made a director of WHPR and later became MD. She was a pioneer in the business, so much so that the media referred to her as ‘the doyenne of Irish PR’.
Finan attracted a cross-section of major clients to WHPR as demand for PR services took off. Despite growing competition, the agency’s portfolio read like a ‘who’s who’ of Irish business with names like the Smurfit Group, Unilever, Fyffes, American Express, Irish Biscuits, DHL, Raleigh, Guinness, the National Lottery, DCC, Fitzwilton and Tony Ryan’s business interests on its books.
Roddy Guiney is now chairman of WH. Known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of sport, Guiney is a former League of Ireland footballer and the son of well-known athlete and sports journalist Dave Guiney. He has advised Ireland’s national sports bodies on strategy and development plans for major projects like the Aviva Stadium. He chaired the Federation of Irish Sport (FIS).
Continued demand for PR saw the leading agencies departmentalise their services with the establishment of separate divisions to service specific client requirements. WH has various units led by specialists: Dee Breen is in charge of lifestyle; Elisabeth Fitzpatrick is joint head of consumer; Amy Pilgrim leads on health and wellness services and Ian Curtin manages Ogilvy Consulting.
WH hired several high-profile and influential public affairs and lobbying experts to work for them down the years, including former Labour Party senior member Fergus Finlay, ex-Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes and junior Government minister Jennifer Carroll-O’Neill. Cian MacEochaidh is the present incumbent. Before joining WH, he co-founded Tribeca PR in Johannesburg in South Africa.
WH’s longest-standing clients include Marks & Spencer (M&S), Diageo’s flagship beer brand Guinness, AIB, Electric Ireland, Safefood and Specsavers, some of which have been with the agency for more than four decades. The WH portfolio also numbers Boots Ireland, Eir, Fáilte Ireland and Rugby Players Ireland (RPI).
For Fáilte Ireland, WH helped devise a campaign to promote staycations following on from the Covid-19 pandemic. An SOS – Save Our Summer – was issued urging Irish people to holiday at home with the line ‘Make a Break For It’. Demand jumped from 42 per cent pre-campaign to 59 per cent, while 85 per cent said they had a wonderful break and would happily holiday at home again.
Boots Ireland hired WH to handle its sponsorship of Love Island on VMTV. A viewing party was held in the Lighthouse Cinema which was transformed into a replica of the Love Island villa. Guests were urged to take photos, videos and fun selfies while trialling products to share online. The reality show reached over two million people and saw an uplift in sales of Boots own brands.
Rosanna Davison was hired by WH to promote M&S
Footballer Louise Quinn fronted for the 20×20 movement where WH’s work helped change the cultural value placed on women’s role in sport. Organised by the Federation of Irish Sport, the campaign’s aim was to increase attendance, participation and coverage of women’s sport by 20 per cent by the end of 2020 with a call to action for everyone to show their stripes.
WH benefits from an ever-increasing tech stack, both in-house and from what is also available through Ogilvy and the WPP network. WH provides a content newsroom for clients, gaming and sonic capabilities, social listening, as well as an evolving artificial intelligence (AI) capability to be explored at a forthcoming Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) event.
The mantra on WH’s website reads: ‘Ceaseless wonder, thoughtful impact’. Investment in its people is another area of focus as the agency grows to more than 90 employees across its business divisions. A head of people job role oversees recruitment, talent retention as well as a training and development programme that ensures all agency staff complete at least 35 hours training a year.
WHPR rolled out a pub rebrand for Guinness 0.0 over the St Patrick’s Day weekend
Digital and social programmes are available through the online WPP Future Readiness Academy. The bi-monthly Ogilvy Essentials programme equips WH teams with best-in-class thinking from across the group’s global network and was recently named by the World Advertising Research Centre (WARC) as not only the leading creative network but also the most effective.
Gillian Herlihy, associate director for strategy and planning at WH, says the goal is to make clients’ brands as noticeable, relevant and memorable as possible. “Buzz and earned media are our currency,” Herlihy said. “As a PR agency, we scrutinise social, cultural and political trends and behaviours to better understand consumer realities. We’re not confined by traditional marketing methods.”
“Taking part in the X-Changers programme widened my experience,” designer and artist Yang Yang said. “We work with Ogilvy colleagues in different markets and job roles.” Sinead O’Donnell, account director in corporate and public affairs, said everyone has each other’s back in the agency. The ‘people first’ culture was the first thing that struck me when I started,” O’Donnell added.
A drive to deliver return on investment for clients is reflected in the number of industry awards WH has picked up over recent years, both at home and overseas. WH campaigns have won major honours at the Marketing Institute’s AIMs, the PRCA Excellence Awards, the Pharma Industry Awards, the UK’s Sport Industry Awards and the European Sponsorship Awards (ESAs).
WH believes that effective communication is not just about business success and brand value but it extends to most objectives. “We’re excited by the increasing emphasis on the craft of PR and the opportunities it affords our business,” O’Connor said. She leaves the final word to Bill Gates, who once said if he had to decide where to spend his last marketing dollar, it would be on PR.
Michael Cullen is editor of Marketing.ie; firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictured, from left to right: Wilson Hartnell team members Yang Yang, Gillian Herlihy, Shane Lennon (back row), Sinead O’Donnell and Sam Feasy