Gravis interview miniseries: David Kerr

18 October 2023

Following on from our recent discussion with Ed Barrett, Director of Planning Consultancy in our Dublin office, we sat down with David Kerr, Group Managing Director of Strategic Communications here at Gravis. In this wide-ranging interview, David looks back on what must have been a busy start to his career, having been centrally involved in producing the Good Friday Agreement. He considers the lessons that coming to work in planning has taught him as a communications professional, and the areas where he has seen planning and politics intersect – or diverge. David also contemplates the role of communications in planning and how it the former as a profession has evolved in recent years, with social phenomena and new technologies presenting challenges and opportunities alike.

David BW Cropped

Before anything else, David – can you tell us a bit about what your life is like outside of the office?

My wife Diane and I have four boys, the oldest is 15 and the youngest is 7, so we have a lot of things going on outside of work, like a lot of families. We like to do things together so whether it’s cycling, walking, going to watch football or rugby matches, we try to stay active and involved in the local community as much as possible.

Given my background in politics, I also like to follow current affairs and I keep in touch with key players in local politics. I have really enjoyed this 25th anniversary year in which we have marked and celebrated the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which transformed politics in Northern Ireland and gave us a pathway out of conflict.

It has been great to get the opportunity to write, speak and take part in broadcast interviews about my time working with the late Lord David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party, when we negotiated the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and then had the hugely difficult task of implementing it and setting up the various political institutions, in the years afterwards.

I remain very passionate about making politics work for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland and I continue to use my influence positively whenever and wherever I can, to encourage political progress and reconciliation, along with social and economic development.

How did you find the transition from the world of politics into the world of planning? Are they all that different?

The big difference between working in politics and my role now is that in politics you only generally have one target audience – your voters. In the private sector and in strategic communications the role is more complex and requires a full understanding of every potential political, community and stakeholder point of view around a project. You need to understand the views of every person affected by a project and you need to be able to communicate with every stakeholder regardless of their politics or position within a community. I have been doing this for 21 years now in the private sector, and I have learned more doing this about consensus building and place-making than I ever would have learned had I stayed in politics.

My role in Gravis Planning is to guide and manage the Strategic Communications around all our projects. The work is not entirely dissimilar to political comms, in that it requires a very organised and intelligence led approach to developing detailed communications strategies to help deliver client projects. You need to understand your multiple target audiences fully and how best to engage with them to get the best project and community outcomes.

What, for you, is the role of strategic communications in planning? Just how important is it?

Strategic Communications is crucially important within the Planning process. Any development project that is going to affect people, businesses or communities must have at its heart, a transparent and meaningful engagement strategy. I can say with absolute authority, that based on my own experience if you engage and communicate properly with stakeholders and communities, you will invariably find the process challenging but also rewarding. Since Pre-Application Community Consultation (PACC) became a statutory requirement for major planning applications in Northern Ireland in 2015, the quality of engagement and consequential planning submissions has markedly improved.

It is, as yet, not a statutory requirement in the Republic of Ireland but I believe it should be because it gives communities their rightful place within the planning process, and more often than not, generates better outcomes because problems are addressed and resolved before the planning applications are submitted. We can cite numerous examples of improved schemes being submitted to planning after pre-application community consultation led to amendments and changes which worked to the benefit of both sides.

How would you say communications as a profession has evolved over the years, and in particular since the turning point that was the Covid-19 pandemic?

Strategic Communications has massively evolved in the past 25 years and it’s been mainly driven by technology. The pandemic forced everyone to raise their game even higher, to be able to engage with mass and diverse audiences online and through print and broadcast media. We have seen great leaps forward using stakeholder mapping GIS software, virtual consultation rooms, sophisticated project websites, high volume online webinar platforms and new methods of tracking and evaluating feedback and data analytics.

We now have the most comprehensive systems for stakeholder engagement and communications that I have ever seen in practice, and they are more affordable for clients than many realise too. We keep pushing the standards higher and we feel the results we’re getting for our clients show the benefits.

I am very fortunate to be working with the best team of strategic comms consultants I have ever worked with in my career. I’m excited about the future for strategic communications in planning across the UK and Ireland and I hope to see our Gravis Planning team grow in the years to come, as we service projects in the different jurisdictions.

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