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Crisis? What crisis?

Crisis? What crisis?

🕔16.Jun 2014

Paul Dale’s post, “Birmingham’s reputation is being systematically trashed: is anyone in charge of the fightback”, raised several important issues that we’ve been chewing over at the Chamberlain Files in recent days.

You can argue that a City (or indeed a city region, aka Greater Birmingham) are not the one and same as the local authority that happens to collect the bins as well as care for vulnerable people and still run a handful of schools. Whilst true, there is no doubt that weeks of negative headlines about Birmingham have reputational impact on the city (not to mention the contribution of Channel 4’s Benefits Street).

However, there are plenty of positives for Birmingham at present. Unemployment on the way down (albeit still far too high and there remain areas of the city with endemic social and economic issues) and inward investment up. Key infrastructure projects finished or nearing completion, including the airport runway and metro extensions and upgrade of New Street station as part of Grand Central.

One issue that remains is the fine line between the City Council’s responsibility to manage its own communications and that of Marketing Birmingham to promote the city as a meeting place; a tourism destination and a location to set up business. It’s not the agency’s job to manage every crisis that emerges from the Council House. However, it’s not helpful to have a seemingly logical demarcation about which set of PR folk do something when Birmingham hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The irony is, in the shadow of Trojan Horse, the city has been enjoying some of its best ever headlines. Usain Bolt’s comments on his Olympic training home and the opening of the new Library of Birmingham caught global attention. More recently, stories about the city’s place as a destination for international visitors, technology firms and the BBC Academy are shaping a different understanding of Birmingham. Bad Joke or Cultural Capital? was the question posed by the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen in a piece that delighted the city’s cultural community.

The Trojan Horse saga will be the subject of lessons in crisis communications in the not too distant future. Whilst the subject itself is clearly difficult, as so often the case it’s the response that usually dictates how it plays out. As Paul describes, the original letter (albeit likely to be a hoax) did not produce any kind of reaction until the media brought it out to the open. Since then, a series of City Council media briefings have not really helped, including a Cabinet member implying it was all the media’s fault.

The view from the national media of how the City has managed the crisis is not good – journalists’ calls not answered and the Chief Executive’s comments to the Files (widely picked up) that it was simply a case of how ‘new communities’ fit in with the liberal education system. Then came leaked comments from Mark Rogers and ‘People’ boss Peter Hay about what really thought of Gove and Wilshaw.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore has been calling, behind the scenes, for a rethink on the Birmingham brand. Strategic marketing and the branding of the city of Birmingham is now written into the City’s service level agreement with Marketing Birmingham. Not a moment too soon, many will say.

As Paul’s piece pointed out, there are many strands to answering the question: “How do you solve a question like Birmingham?” Structural issues, like breaking up the city into manageable chunks, imposing a directly elected mayor and a combined authority with the Black Country will feature in the debate about this city and devolution more generally in the run up to next May’s General Election. Before all that, though, we must improve how we stitch together how this city’s reputation is managed; redefining our brand and making sure all the good work (including positive PR) is not undone.

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