News Analysis: Mudslinging intensifies at Wembley

Wembley National Stadium Ltd and Multiplex have been on the attack in the media over the latest delays to the stadium's opening. David Quainton gauges opinion on how each side's reputation is holding up

Overbudget and massively delayed, Wembley Stadium has sailed past its proposed opening date and is now not likely to be ready until 2007.

In the meantime, the media continue to report squabbling between Australian builder Multiplex and Wembley National Stadium Ltd (WNSL). Each blames the other for the delays, neither is backing down - and neither is doing its own reputation any favours.

But there are more than just reputations at stake - each side's lawyers are watching closely as frustrations and
tit-for-tat claims mount.

From bad to worseThe past fortnight has seen relations reach crisis point: Multiplex claimed in a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange that the 90,000-capacity stadium was ‘substantially complete', but that progress was being held up by WNSL. The latter responded by blaming Multiplex for the problems.

One football journalist says: ‘The war of words is like watching two tramps fight over the contents of a litter-bin. Any perceived victory is as empty as a discarded chip wrapper.'

In the view of Daily Mail sports columnist Charles Sale, WNSL has taken slightly more of a battering than
Sydney-based Multiplex, although the latter has lost tens of millions on its ‘showcase' contract. He says the only way either side can improve its image is by getting the stadium finished.

‘The PR people are in a difficult position because the squabbling is above their heads. Only lawyers will benefit now,' he says.

Many are sympathetic towards WNSL and Multiplex, which until recently had both been advised by two former Sun editors - Stuart Higgins and David Yelland respectively. While Higgins's self-titled agency continues to advise WNSL, Yelland's exit from Weber Shandwick (PRWeek, 4 August) means its Multiplex account is now being handled by Lee Findell and Fiona McLachlan at the agency.

McLachlan says: ‘18 months ago Multiplex didn't speak but it now talks to shareholders regularly, which is important when making a £183m loss [on the project].

‘The public and shareholders need to know that delivery depends on the client as well as the builder. I think that message is getting across.'

‘We recognise there is frustration at the project's delays and this is reflected in recent coverage,' admits WNSL head of PR and music Jim Frayling. ‘However, we feel satisfied that we have achieved our objective of giving a realistic appraisal of progress.'

But can Multiplex and WNSL bounce back from the constant blows to their reputation?

‘As frustration has turned to farce, both companies look like squabbling children refusing to tidy their room,' says one football journalist. ‘And, like those messy kids, the only way to improve their reputations is to finish the job quietly.'

Need for unity
Bell Pottinger Sports and Sponsorship director Tom Webb, who works on Emirates' sponsorship of Arsenal FC's new stadium, agrees: ‘They need a united front with a definite plan of action. The firms need to speak together.'

This is a sentiment repeated by Sale, but he concedes that such public unity is an unlikely scenario.

In recent months, internecine sniping aside, the Football Association has sought to stress that when Wembley eventually opens it will be an impressive stadium indeed.

But until the first ball is kicked on the recently laid turf, the unseemly infighting will no doubt continue.

Below, PRWeek sought the views of a local journalist and council head of comms in the London borough of Brent, where the stadium is located.

The local journalist view: Charlie Chute
‘Internationally speaking, Multiplex's reputation is damaged; nationally, the FA is embarrassed; but locally, it is Brent Council that is suffering the most.

‘The stadium was at the heart of Brent's "Vision for A New Wembley", a document produced in 2002, promising to transform the area into an international leisure destination.

‘The council claimed credit for ensuring the national stadium stayed in Wembley, and happily lapped up praise from all quarters. Four years later, Wembley Stadium is a national joke, and few - if any - visible benefits have been delivered. Multiplex and WNSL might be involved in a public slanging match, but for most people in Wembley it is fairly simple: Multiplex is the builder, the stadium is not built, so Multiplex is responsible. But WNSL hired the firm.

‘But the council is bearing the brunt of criticism. Critics blame what they see as naivety over everything from a lack of school places to plans to cut nearby A&E services. The council was happy to bask in the glory when things were going well, and will inevitably suffer as they go wrong.'

Charlie Chute is a reporter at The Willesden & Brent Times

The local council view: Toni McConville
‘It's unfortunate that the stadium has not been completed on schedule. But this situation seems to be overshadowing the fact that when it does open the stadium will be one of the most fantastic sporting and entertainment venues in the world - in Brent we're really proud of that.

‘Brent Council's communications team has worked directly with Multiplex and Wembley National Stadium Limited, and all of our dealings with both organisations have been extremely positive. My judgment is based on those experiences rather than on the media headlines on any given day. A project on this sort of scale is bound to experience some difficulties along the way - such projects have done everywhere else in the world.

‘It is a real shame that the difficulties and disagreements are getting so much exposure. The media has been a real protagonist in all of the debate around the development and has been sniping away at the project on and off for years. It hasn't helped the situation.

‘I hope that once the stadium is up and running, these arguments will dissipate.'

Toni McConville is director of comms and consultation at Brent Council

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