Case study: Paisley 2021 bid for UK City of Culture rekindles Scottish town's sense of identity

Paisley launched a bid to become the UK City of Culture 2021, part of a plan to tap into the Scottish town's heritage while taking it into the future. It may not have won, but the campaign brought a depressed town into the 21st century.

Ambassador: Paolo Nutini plays charity gig for Paisley 2021
Ambassador: Paolo Nutini plays charity gig for Paisley 2021

Paisley is famous for once being the heart of the world's textile industry, not least thanks to its eponymous paisley pattern, part of the lexicon of classic design. But the last thread mill closed in the 1990s and the town has since attracted lots of negative press around crime, unemployment and deprivation, denting confidence.

Renfrewshire Council sought to turn around perceptions, boost confidence both locally and beyond, and generate publicity and passion around its bid.

Kicking off in December 2015 and running until the bid winner announcement in December 2017, the campaign comprised many key messages. The top line was that Paisley's bid was part of a broader plan to use its history to revitalise its future, and whether or not it won, the process would help it on that journey.

Paisley 2021 — community-spirited comms

The five aims were to boost the local economy; tackle poverty; make Paisley a vibrant destination for tourism; showcase its cultural excellence and change its reputation. The local community was at the crux of activity.

The campaign was aimed at groups at a local, Scottish, UK and international level. High-profile influencers including locally born celebrities and politicians were recruited. They included musician Paolo Nutini, who did a charity gig and featured a UK-wide Big Issue cover story, while Twitter advocacy was gained from actor Gerard Butler, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell. It was deemed crucial that locals understood what the bid meant for them and so they were asked what they felt defined Paisley.

Activity eschewed paid-for advertising, with traditional PR going into overdrive. Photo calls using local artists included a gathering of 200 people to form a human paisley pattern in the town centre, while a partnership with Diageo's local Scotch whisky plant resulted in the creation of limited edition paisley-patterned Johnnie Walker bottles.

Meanwhile, local artist Morgan Spence produced stop-motion Lego animation.

Scottish media were used to help build community support, alongside community websites, and local paper Paisley Daily Express was a vociferous supporter.

The campaign's Facebook and Twitter channels carried stories and blogs from locals, with a Paisley 2021 website acting as a hub for all the channel content as well as providing information on the attractions of the area.

Social was used to promote the support of local and national partner organisations, with toolkits deployed to share and amplify key messages. Local businesses got onboard too as bid backers.

Get out of town

By the time of the UK City of Culture decision in December 2017, the campaign had garnered the biggest social following of any bidding city, and Paisley had become the only non-city ever to make the shortlist.

Although it did not win, the town has experienced an upsurge in confidence and tourism, with visits to Renfrewshire attractions growing by 26 per cent in 2016 and the number of attendees at major events growing from 95,000 to 160,000.

Around 36,000 locals (equivalent to half the town's population) shared their vision for the bid, an audience size that was lauded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as "exemplary".

Media response was unprecedented, with a reach of around 760 million from around 4,500 pieces of print, online and broadcast coverage and almost 600,000 page views on the campaign website.

The campaign garnered visits from publications not predisposed to visiting Paisley, including The Guardian, Financial Times, Huffington Post, New York Times, Irish Independent and The Chinese Weekly.

The campaign gained an average of two 'Paisley 2021' mentions a day during 2017 in the Paisley Daily Express.

Paisley became the only Scottish location to make the 2021 shortlist. The hashtag #ourjourneycontinues was coined by campaign supporters and continues to play an active part in the town's rejuvenated comms.

The campaign has been nominated for a CIPR Excellence award.

Louisa Mahon, head of comms, marketing and events at Renfrewshire Council, said: "At the start we knew there was one thing we had to do above all else – to change the narrative about Paisley after decades of negative headlines. The tone of the coverage and the feedback we received around the final decision told us that had happened and that Paisley had found its voice again.

"To work on something that generated feedback of that kind was a privilege. Even though we didn’t become UK City of Culture 2021 we still feel Paisley won – and to be part of it was an incredible experience."

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