News analysis: Can Liverpool rediscover 2008 buzz?

Sarah Robertson seeks local media views on the challenge now facing the 'Capital of Culture's comms team.

When Liverpool pipped Newcastle to be named European Capital of Culture 2008 three years ago, the city's business and community leaders rejoiced amid promises of bountiful economic development.

But the mood has turned rather sour. Plans for a futuristic ten-storey building, The Cloud, have long since been scrapped.

Further negative coverage came last week when Australian Robyn Archer, the artistic director of the Culture Company - responsible for events to mark the city's 800th anniversary next year and its Culture status - left amid an apparent row over plans for 2008.

One PR professional involved in the original Culture bid says: ‘The Culture Company is not communicating. It is not engaging local people and the board meets in private - too much is being done in secret.'

He even goes so far as to claim that because Trinity Mirror is an official partner of the event, its local newspapers are failing to adequately hold the organisation to account - something firmly denied by Liverpool Echo editor Alastair Machray. He insists: ‘We battered them over Robyn's departure.'

The biggest criticism of the project is that little detail has emerged as to what events are planned. The Culture Company has pledged to unveil its strategy in the autumn, and disagrees that it should release more regular bulletins.

Liverpool expects
Culture Company director of comms Paul Newman says: ‘With all high-profile projects there is a comms vacuum between appointment and delivery. One of the penalties of working in a high-profile environment is that people get impatient.'

He adds: ‘There are serious professional discussions going on behind the scenes. Signing up artists means the timing of announcements is sensitive.'

The Culture Company should be able to reverse the negative publicity by confirming, as promised, an impressive line-up of events. But in the meantime, Liverpudlians will have to hold their breath and hope for the best.

Below, local journalists and PR professionals give their verdict on what needs to be done.

 Alastair Machray, editor, Liverpool Echo

‘The story about the artistic director's exit was positive compared with other coverage of the Culture Company. Archer was booking acts that had little resonance to Liverpool, and her programme offered no popular culture, just high-brow acts such as aboriginal nose-flute players.

‘To reverse the negative publicity the campaign needs to promote some fantastic acts and events, which hopefully have already been booked. Once this happens, the people of Liverpool will, perhaps reluctantly, nod their heads in appreciation.

‘So yes, the Culture Company can shake off the negative publicity. The rest of the UK thinks we are bare-chested drug-dealers who stride the streets with pitbull terriers, but there are lots of positive stories coming out of the city.
‘It suits other cities to use us as a whipping-boy, it allows them to cover up their own inadequacies. We want the festival to go well - a happy Liverpool means a happy Liverpool Echo.'

Liam Fogarty, former managing editor of BBC Radio Merseyside

‘Capital of Culture 2008 - a brand to die for - is an opportunity to overcome the negative images attached to Liverpool. We haven't blown it. Yet.

‘But much of the pride and optimism generated by the award has seeped away. Like a new model of the locally made Jaguar, Liverpool '08 emerged amid flashbulbs and dry ice. Now Robyn Archer has gone, no one is quite sure what's under the bonnet.

‘People who don't know their arts from their elbow issue upbeat press releases, but there is a widespread sense that a great gift is slipping through our fingers. Liverpudlians are desperate to help make 2008 a year to remember. But the organisers' plans remain vague and the festivities are increasingly looking like a car crash in slow motion.

‘2008 could be Liverpool's annus mirabilis. The raw materials are there, but we need some straight talking and proper leadership to make the most of them.'

Fogarty now runs the campaign

Richard Clein, associate director, Bell Pottinger North

‘The negative publicity from Archer's departure was expected but the fightback has already begun, with some positive stories appearing.

‘The need to connect with communities is the most critical thing for the Culture Company. The focus thus far has been on the city centre rather than the suburbs. There is also a feeling that everything anyone does has to be okayed by the Culture Company - for example, firms have to pay to use the 2008 logo, yet surely they should be encouraged to use it.

‘There is also a feeling that there are too many themed years - we have recently had the Liverpool "Year of Learning", for example. During these years there is nothing special happening, nothing of substance that helps people understand what the Culture Company is about. Also, people feel they are being held back from celebrating and organising things on their own initiative.

‘However, it is not too late to engage with the community - there are still opportunities for positive reporting.'

Jon Egan, director, October Communications

‘The Culture Company needs to put together a programme faithful to the creative personality of the city, and this has always been unconventional, irreverent, challenging, outward looking, diverse and surprising.

‘If it can strike this note, reinforcing the positive characteristics of the modern side of Liverpool, the organisation will be able to get the local and the creative community behind the 2008 project. The contemporary music and film industries in the city, for instance, are accessible cultural media.

‘But the programme also needs to be something that enhances the city's reputation internationally. It is a European festival after all, so we need some pan-European effort and relations.

‘It is possible to get people behind the campaign - the creative community here wants it to be a success. But the Culture Company should be significantly engaging this community in the planning process now - indeed, it should be given a fundamental role.'

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