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In conversation with John Fullerton - Gravis Planning's Director of Strategic Communications

21 March 2024

As Director of Strategic Communications at Gravis Planning, John Fullerton advises our clients on all aspects of engagement with local communities, political representatives, the media and other key stakeholders, and is recognised as a trusted adviser to range of public and private sector organisations. In this interview, he discusses how he became a communications professional, what makes a great communicator, what an average day at Gravis is like for him, and more.

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John – like everyone else, we’ll ask you what your life was like before Gravis, and what your life is like outside of it?

Outside of work for me is mainly about spending time with my family. We have two boys, a three-year-old and a seven-month-old. As anyone with young kids knows, they certainly keep us busy! My wife Cara is from just outside Edinburgh so we like to travel back there to visit family and friends as much as we can, and we will often have family staying with us too. In my own free time, I follow the highs (and lows) of Ulster Rugby and Arsenal, as well as keeping up to date with political developments and current affairs. My oldest boy is also now starting to try out different sports and its good fun taking him along to those at the weekend.

After finishing a Law Degree and Masters in Scotland, my first job was working in Stormont. This gave me a real understanding of the operation of the NI Assembly as well as an insight into how all the local political parties function. My time at Stormont coincided with the longest uninterrupted period of devolution since the institutions were established in 1998. This gave me valuable experience working on significant legislative reform, Government policy and Committee inquires.

I then joined the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) team in Belfast and worked with decision-makers in Stormont and Local Government to support the small business sector. This included working on important economic issues such as energy, planning, tax policy, procurement, childcare and employment law.

Working in politics and for a business organisation gave me an appreciation of how vital devolved Government is to make Northern Ireland work for everyone. This was obviously brought into sharp focus in recent years with the lack of an Executive between 2017 and 2020 and again between 2022 and 2024. This clearly resulted in a lack of delivery across a number of ‘big ticket’ items. It’s good that we are now in a position to begin to address that. In terms of the economy, there is no doubt that a functioning Assembly will increase indigenous business confidence and help to encourage Foreign Direct Investment into Northern Ireland. I am looking forward to working with our locally elected representatives from all parties in the coming years as we take forward some major projects on behalf of our clients.

What, in your opinion, are the things which mark out a good strategic communications consultant? What are the common mistakes you have seen in your experience over the years, and what are some things that you have learned?

Experience is always important. During my career I have provided strategic communications advice for development proposals in every sector and across every Council area in Northern Ireland, as well in GB and Ireland. That builds an understanding of how to put the right strategy in place for each project.

Preparation and research are also a fundamental part of doing the job well. We spend a lot of time putting together detailed communications plans and stakeholder matrixes and we carefully manage engagement with regards to consultation techniques, timing and key messages to be delivered.

In terms of mistakes, we always avoid rushing into public engagement exercises without putting in the necessary groundwork first with key stakeholders, in a particular area or local community. We also plan communications activities which will inform, shape and influence opinion. We don’t advise clients carry out communications activities unless they are meaningful and have a strategic purpose.

What does your role as a Director of Strategic Communications look like on an average day?

After nearly ten years in this role, I can say that the cliché ‘no two days are the same’ is probably right! This is because we have a wide variety of projects across areas such as energy, infrastructure, housing and education with each requiring a different approach.

Generally, I will be meeting with political representatives to brief them on proposals, managing public consultation events, providing ad hoc advice to clients on political issues or corporate positioning, as well as liaising with media outlets on projects which are newsworthy.

Many projects also require a suite of collateral materials such as brochures, newsletters, websites and promotional videos. My team and I will draft content and work with third party suppliers to manage production of these types of communications tools.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the job is working with my colleagues in Gravis. Our Strategic Communications team is very strong and is often instructed to advise on the most complex and challenging projects around. Our planning consultants are hugely experienced with a track record that speaks for itself. Importantly, we also get along well and support each other, as any successful team should.

What does the future look like for Gravis Planning?

Growth in Dublin continues, led by our Director of Planning in Ireland, Ed Barrett, and earlier this year we also appointed Keith Hargest as our new Director of Planning in Great Britain. As well as Northern Ireland, I am working on projects in GB and Ireland and we see those markets having very strong growth potential.

With a functioning Assembly bringing some renewed optimism in Northern Ireland, and our plans for further recruitment in GB and Ireland, I am confident that Gravis will continue to grow in the months and years ahead.

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