Joe McConnell is a man steeped in the city of Birmingham, a city in which he has lived and worked his whole life. Tom Fleming talks to him about his career.
Although his various roles have seen him fulfil a range of remits, Joe McConnell has remained fiercely loyal to his native city and the region, and since the late 1960s it has provided him with the bulk of his career.
He is clear about the “thread” that has run through his working life; the common denominator which has underlined all he has done – and that’s communication.
And the way people communicate, of course, has changed over those years. From someone who started his working life in the Town Clerk’s department in 1969, he’s today the project manager of an initiative which has produced learning material in various hi-tech formats, as well as pioneering the regionally renowned and respected online business news service, Biztv.
A relaxed and engaging character with a ready smile, he is quick to recognise and appreciate the role that communication has played in a career which has seen him come face-to-face with royalty, politicians and the great and the good of Birmingham.
“That communication ‘thread’ starts with old-fashioned legal documents bound together and tied with a little bit of pink tape which, when I first started in the Town Clerk’s department, we had to check as legal documents reading across to each other,” he says.
“That was the start of a role which they would now probably call a committee administrator.”
It was, back then, a world of big old leather sofas in the basement of the council house.
Of Irish stock – his father came across here in the 1940s – Joe was born in Aston, and his work at the council had come about through a family friend. It was a good vantage point from which to take a broad overview of the city. As part of a central department it covered many different aspects of the city’s work.
“It seemed like important stuff, to me it seemed to matter,” he says. He applied himself and quickly came up through the ranks, being appointed principal assistant for civic affairs (the Lord Mayor’s secretary) reporting to the city council’s chief executive across a whole host of civic matters.
These included issues such as, pulling together major events such as the city’s Remembrance Day parades, overseas visits and welcoming royalty to the city and what was then called town twinning. At this stage of his life he was developing into a natural communicator – he certainly thinks the Irish background helped – and in time he moved to the city council’s Directorate of Public Affairs, where he embraced an expanding international public relations remit.
One of the obvious skills he has is that - though he sees himself as a good facilitator of communications professionally - he knows how to listen too.
“It is something you learn, when to sit on the edge of the conversation and listen in rather than fight for a space at the table,” he says.
But he will fight when he needs to, and his role in pubic affairs at the beginning of the 1990s involved developing a recognition that Birmingham needed to vastly improve how it marketed itself as a destination. And so, eventually, along came Birmingham Marketing Partnership, which we now know as Marketing Birmingham. Joe was readily snapped up as the new organisation’s public relations manager.
In communications terms, the world was staring down the barrel of the digital revolution. Joe, more than most, had had experience of the advent of development in how we were going to talk to each other, so was already sensing we were in for in a period of rapid change.
“One of the first times I came across digital communications was when I was organising an event where Birmingham was representing Britain in Kiev, in the Ukraine, in the 1980s and I had to communicate from Birmingham with a contact from the Foreign Office who had a satellite dish on his balcony in Kiev.
“It must have raised a few eyebrows, because it got back to me that someone in the Council House had picked up on this rather strange link-up and thought I’d been spying! These days communications are so much easier, and sometimes it annoys me that our children will have no idea how easy it is to do today what it was massively difficult to do ten, 15 or 20 years ago.”
From the formation of Birmingham Marketing Partnership in 1993, he spent seven years as the organisation’s PR manager, working with journalists from around the region, the rest of the UK and from across the globe. With the integration of internet and email into the core of the communications activity, Joe was tasked with bringing together the first generation of websites promoting Birmingham as a destination.
As the internet gathered pace, he also developed event-specific sites for the 1996 European Championship football tournament, the G8 Summit held in the city and the Eurovision Song Contest.
It was important these sites also sent out the right messages about the city to a rapidly-expanding audience, so careful liaison was required with the NEC group, the city council and a host of business organisations across the Midlands.
“The main change at this stage was it was taking less and less time to communicate as new technology improved and enhanced what we were able to do. I did have a worry, however, that we spent less and less time getting that communication right,” he says.
The city was waking up to what other cities were doing and how much Birmingham needed to improve.
“We were faced with issues at Birmingham Marketing Partnership of trying to deal with lots of press activity from all over the world around events like G8, and you couldn’t deal with those challenges in terms of traditional methods involving fax and stills images or does anyone now use 35m slides? For the first few years I had a major task in persuading publications home and overseas simply to go a website and take images direct from there.
“There was also the issue of what we were actually promoting back then. You look at how the city has changed since and what we have to promote now, and you begin to ask yourself what on earth you were talking to people about then. Though we used to get positive reactions from people when we got them to come here, it seemed like every publication in the world had stock photography which consisted only of Spaghetti Junction and the old Bullring.
“No matter how many times you talked to them about other things in the city – Brindleyplace, whatever – Spaghetti Junction has only really been pushed off the pages by the Selfridges building.”
And he is as clear today about what should – and should not – be put forward as the city’s strengths. “We have to live with the tag Second City and not get hung up about it for a start,” he says. “Who cares if we are second or 22nd? If the city is a good place to be, to live, to work, to play, then we have to market its strengths and you can’t do that purely because one city has more people in it than another.
“What we can talk about – and this goes for all the visitors I ever spoke to or took around the city – is how friendly the people here are. I do think there is a fairly relaxed and open attitude around the city now and it is partly because of the mix of people. There is barely a room in the city where you’d find everyone being born and brought up here – we all come from somewhere else or our parents did. I think that makes us as a city more tolerant and more understanding and inclusive.”
The inclusivity and strong sense of spirit spreads to the business community too.
“Birmingham is a compact, safe environment in which to work, but there is also an element to it which I first realised when I worked in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour. There are a lot of tiers of activity in this city – business, education, charities, military connections, religious groupings.
“What is great about all these groups is that you’d rarely go to a meeting of one them and not see someone who had not been at one of the other groups; so there is a real crossing over. It is difficult to walk down New Street and not see someone you know. Birmingham might be a big city but it is actually a village.
“You talk about six degrees of separation, but it’s probably actually about two in the Birmingham business community. It means, however, you get different perspectives on people within those groups and that in turn oils the wheels of business because often in business the hardest things is knowing who to talk to and getting to the right person. If you don’t have to fight through layers you can readily find yourself talking to someone who has the answer you are looking for. That works very efficiently in Birmingham. I would hope it works in other cities too – I don’t know – but you couldn’t imagine it happening in London.”
What the city doesn’t do well, he says, is telling others about our successes – making things, hosting events and exhibitions, creating an exciting atmosphere in the city centre, doing business with each other. But no city can be good at everything, so it’s a matter of concentrating on what we are good at, telling those who need to know so that others can come to do business here, and in turn work hard to get good at other things too.
It’s the business world in which Joe is most at home. When he left Birmingham Marketing Partnership in 2000 he set himself up as a PR consultant, working with individual companies and in-house and agency operations, as well as acting in a business development capacity for a major regional news agency.
He then went on the head up a project bringing together the worlds of education and business, providing material to colleges and further education institutions in the form of targeted video clips using “real life” examples from the world of business. He has also been instrumental in developing the range of offering and profile of Biztv, a news and information website for business and commerce across the region. Joe’s operation is funded by Advantage West Midlands and based at Aston University.
The service provides an opportunity for businesses – whatever their sector – to tell their stories to a very targeted audience through a thoroughly modern medium. Traditionally this has been done through video and photographs, though increasingly businesses and organisations are using podcasts to communicate.
Joe said: “We’ve been delighted with the success of the project, and we have genuinely been breaking new ground by helping introduce major city-region players to audio downloads “podcasts” helping them better communicate with their own members, each other and the broader business community.”
Amongst those who use the podcast facility are member organisations such as Birmingham Forward, the Chamber of Commerce and the CBI – though others are doing so too.
“We are only interested in profiling positive news about the city region,” says Joe, “and often people just don’t realise what a wealth of positive material they are sitting on.”
Through work such as this, Joe and his team are proving what he has known constantly throughout his working life; the way we communicate is constantly changing, and there are always new methods to be tried.
And whilst he is as fiercely proud of what he has achieved, he is equally proud of the city in which he has achieved it.