Three decades - and a change of communication

Claire Aiken reflects on how much has changed socially, culturally and technologically since 1994

Claire Aiken column
Flashback to 30 years ago, when IBM developed the ‘Simon’ phone

The year is 1994. Tony Blair has been elected leader of the Labour Party and Queen Elizabeth II and French President François Mitterrand have just cut the ribbon on the Channel Tunnel, creating for the first time a fixed line between the island of Great Britain and the European mainland.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, within the communications industry 1994 was a sign of things to come, both in terms of how we access information and connect with one another.

In the UK, for example, the Daily Telegraph became the first national newspaper to launch an online edition, while 1994 also marked the advent of the smartphone. But not as we know it.

Developed by IBM, the bulky contraption known simply as ‘Simon’ packed in a touchscreen, email functionality and even a calculator. Not bad for a pioneering hand held device released in the mid-90s. Alas, the one-hour battery life put paid to any dreams of immortality, and the Simon smartphone was shelved after just six months on the market.

Oh, how far we’ve come. It’s hard to imagine life today without immediate access to online news and the ever-present smartphone – the two effectively go hand-in-hand. One thing’s for sure: communication would look, feel and sound very different.

When Aiken PR began life with a single client in 1994, communication was analogue. This was the era of the landline; digital was but a distant dream. Hunkered over a makeshift kitchen office, my first days were driven by the belief that there are no borders in communication. Something that’s still infused into the agency DNA to this day.

By collaborating right across the four corners of the island, we can engage the best in the business. Using our shared history and geography as opportunities to come together, rather than reasons to divide. Which in many ways is a mindset I owe to my father, Jim Aiken. His tireless commitment in bringing some of the world’s top music acts to these shores, whether it was Bruce Springsteen or The Rolling Stones, will forever be a source of inspiration.

Rolling Stones gig
Claire Aiken's father Jim had a tireless commitment to bringing some of the world’s top music acts to these shores, including the Rolling Stones

Not just because of the historical context and securing major international acts for Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, but his outlook on music and its unifying power to reach across borders and cultural differences. A sort of social glue that in many ways helped put Ireland on the world stage at such a crucial moment.

Thirty years ago, cross-border collaboration was still verging on uncharted territory; it wasn’t until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that north-south relations were formally raised on to the radar and deemed to be of mutual interest.

Over the years, we’ve seen just how vital those links can be, not just in terms of supply chains and integrated economics, but also when an all-island response is imperative. As was the case during the pandemic, for example. A similarly joined-up approach to the climate emergency is needed if we are to safeguard the island we share.

What has been encouraging to see in recent years is the Shared Island funding scheme continuing to fan the flames of collaboration across a number of industries, from healthcare to energy to the environment. Investment that helps unlock new opportunities north and south ensuring ambition isn’t confined by borders.

Claire Aiken
Claire Aiken

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but all told, in reflecting on 30 years of business, it’s incredible to think of how much has changed – socially, culturally, technologically. 2024 presents an entirely new landscape for communication and with it new opportunities to connect and collaborate on an island-wide scale as many businesses already have.

While there will always be red tape and challenges, there are exciting opportunities that we must grasp, with dual market access being top of the inbox. As for businesses, the onus is on leaders to be ambitious and deliver on the potential that Northern Ireland and the island has to offer.

Here’s to the next 30 years . . . and just think of how ‘smart’ our phones will be then!

  • Claire Aiken is managing director at Aiken PR