Rural Enterprise: The unsung hero of UK SMEs
We meet rural businesses daily who are seriously punching above their weight and making a significant economic difference. And the stats back this up. In England, for example, predominantly rural districts generated £237 billion in GVA (gross value added) in 2015, according to analysis by Rural Enterprise UK of the BEIS UK Longitudinal Small Business Survey. This matched the value of goods and services from the country’s 10 leading cities, outside of London. The Statistical Digest of Rural England from April 2019 then showed that the GVA had risen to £246 billion by 2017, accounting for 15.8 per cent of the country’s output.
“Much like race and gender representation in the media domain is important, we at Dales PR & Marketing would like to see – and hear – rural voices better represented too. The UK boasts a thriving, rural economy, which makes the opinion of a successful business owner in Wensleydale as valid as one in West London.”
From a PR perspective, we’ve found rural businesses’ views are less frequently sought – and often only for rural-specific issues like agricultural, weather and tourism. Despite the huge contribution they make as part of the general business conversation, rural SMEs face being boxed in by frustrating and outdated pigeonholing. A country-based business doesn’t only cater to customers in agriculture, in the same way that not everyone living in the countryside is a farmer!
Much like race and gender representation in the media domain is important, we at Dales PR & Marketing would like to see – and hear – rural voices better represented too. The UK boasts a thriving rural economy, which makes the opinion of a successful business owner in Wensleydale as valid as one in West London.
The proportion of those working for SMEs is also significantly higher in the country, where 72 per cent of those working in a registered rural enterprise are working for an SME. The Statistical Digest of Rural England states that only 41 per cent of the workforce registered at urban enterprises is at an SME. Why then are country-based SMEs not among the go-to specialists for comment on relevant business matters in the media?
All minority or underrepresented groups have something unique to offer, and having worked with many businesses across the Dales, we know that rural businesses are no exception. Yet, similarly to other under-represented groups, there are challenges. In a survey carried out by our sister company, Dales Business Women, over 60 per cent of businesses cited lack of funds as a reason for not pursing PR and more targeted marketing. While this is by no means specific to rural businesses, these enterprises also have their own unique challenges, such as patchy connectivity, transportation difficulties and dealing with a more sparse and spread-out population, all of which push marketing further down the list of priorities.
The rural businesses we work with feel representation is crucial.
“There are so many wonderful rural businesses around North Yorkshire with interesting and inspiring stories to be told, but getting these heard is a real challenge,” says Sarah Comerford, Client Services Director at Purple Creative Studio. “We’re told that people are interested in people, and we’re a nation of enterprising small businesses – but the media suggests the opposite,” she continues. “That is where using an expert really benefits businesses, someone who can find angles and publications to help get our stories told with their knowledge and experience. Otherwise it doesn’t seem possible.”
We also spoke to journalists, who agreed that it’s difficult getting rural businesses’ stories considered for coverage in the national press, and outside of specifically rural issues – particularly with such a London-centric focus.
“Hunter wellies are fashionable, but sadly rural life is not,” explains freelance writer Laura-Jane Jones from the Vale of Glamorgan. “The frequency with which radio and chat shows cover things like veganism without giving the opposite viewpoint of the farming industry is infuriating, especially in our current, very changeable economic climate.”
“Rural communities often suffer from careless clichés and generalisation. Rural deprivation is a real and serious issue – yet it’s brushed under the carpet,” says Jane Alexander, a freelance journalist and author who lived on Exmoor for 17 years.
“Very occasionally there will be a report on local BBC news. Of course another part of it is that rural people (huge generalisation coming up here) are often not willing to talk about their problems. When I first moved to the heart of Exmoor, I suffered from post-natal depression. The prevailing attitude was that it didn’t really exist, that people out there are tough and just get on with it. Scratch beneath the surface and I found swathes of women who were suffering in silence. There’s a raw honesty about rural life that is missing in cities”
“The frequency with which radio and chat shows cover things like veganism without giving the opposite viewpoint of the farming industry is infuriating, especially in our current, very changeable economic climate.”
So what can be done to re-address the balance in the media for small rural businesses? If you’re a journalist, our advice is simply to be more conscious. Much like you may consider speaking to a high-achieving businesswoman instead of a man, or a black yoga teacher instead of a white female yoga teacher, to truly represent the diversity of British society, also keep (or find!) rural businesses in this mix.
If you’re a rural business – don’t be daunted! There are small things you can do to make a difference. You can get in touch with your local newspaper journalists to introduce your business and share any relevant pieces of news. You can engage with journalists on Twitter, where they tend to be very active. Or if you’re unsure, you could go on an introductory PR course to help get a better understanding of journalists and how they work.
At Dales PR & Marketing, we are passionate about helping under-represented voices break through the media noise. With the 545,00 businesses registered in rural areas accounting for 24 per cent of all businesses registered in England, there’s certainly no reason for these voices to go unheard – particularly when it comes to start-ups and smaller businesses, as there are proportionately more SMEs in rural areas since 2017 according to official government statistics.
Rural businesses really are the unsung hero of UK SMEs. They have plenty to offer and say and we’re proud to be representing them.