In terms of media exposure, August was a mixed bag for the North East’s science and technology sector.
The month started well when the British Library ranked the region as the most inventive. Would you believe, with a population a third of the size, the North East creates the same number of patents as London, with only a quarter of the cash? Much of the resulting coverage fell back on the usual historical references to the steam engine, Newcastle Brown Ale, the light bulb, etc, etc, but no-one really minded because, actually, the North East is very proud of its heritage, despite this frequently being a source of outdated stereotypes. All in all, a very good reason to be cheerful.
A few days later, however, the Daily Telegraph’s Milo Yiannopoulos wrote a fairly damning piece on the North East digital sector’s reliance on, and waste of, public funds. It was a well-informed annihilation of both the region’s investment in scientific entrepreneurship, and the attitude of its start-up beneficiaries whom, he claims, royally rip off the public sector when they sell their funded services back.
He did at least make passing mention of recognised successes, namely Codeworks and The Difference Engine, both of which have invested public money and generated real-life business investments at the other end, as well as created networks such as Connect that, longer-term, hold the key to self-sufficient professional communities in the region.
To be fair, you can’t really compare patent generation with actual business success, but these extremist reports of ‘success’ versus abject ‘failure’ must leave audiences with either conflicting (if you’ve read both articles) or polarised views on the health of the digital economy in the North East.
In terms of communications, we need some moderation in all of this, surely. Yes, science and technology prowess is partly measured in the registration of wonderful ideas – and it’s here that the North East needs little in the way of education, with an enviable population of scientists, engineers and world-famous professors.
But for all our tenacity in digital invention, it’s what happens after that, in terms of investment away from the public sector, industry collaboration and, yes, communication, that has the likes of the Daily Telegraph penning premature obituaries for the region.
As Yiannopoulos pointed out, so many of these companies appear to have spun out, started up and crashed down, without so much as a courtesy call from a London-based journalist or venture capitalist, despite ‘wasting’ lots of money on PR and other dark arts.
As an aside, such is the tide of criticism against PR and marketing spend by the public sector that some media have been keenly submitting Freedom of Information requests demanding we all know the cost of public sector communications. FOI requests that, ironically, cost the taxpayer.
The fact that there is now very little public funding left to invest in communications is academic in this context. The point has been made for aeons that what this region boasts in natural abundance – beauty, friendliness, heritage, among other assets – it lacks in connectivity to London, where, let’s face it, a number of important decisions are made. Online communication has broken down a number of geographic barriers, but of course, no amount of Followers, Friends or Unique Visitors can compensate for a real-life, financially quantifiable, money-in-the-bank deal, from one venture capitalist.
Is it really any wonder, therefore, that the North East has spent time and money reaching out, trying to raise its profile, albeit with mixed results?
I can only conclude that, in our ‘here today, gone today’ news culture, it’s really not a question of can companies afford to talk to their customers, peers, and regulators, but rather, how are they doing it, with whom, and what are the results? In that respect, an investment in brand communications is only as good or bad as the resulting advice and how it is implemented.
Personally, I prefer to see the fact that the North East has had to put more in the tank to cover the distance as testament to its energy and enthusiasm for innovation (remember those patents), rather than a collective willingness to waste money.