How the Mersey got its beat back

PR helped Liverpool thrive as Europe's Capital of Culture

Selling a city – especially one with such a long and prickly relationship with the British press – is no mean feat. Nor is selling culture. So promoting Liverpool as the European Capital of Culture for 2008 was never going to be easy. For Paul Newman, it was an opportunity not to be missed and with his background as head of communications at the Football Association (FA) having included such moments as Sven-Göran Eriksson's turbulent private life and the controversy over where the money was going to come from to build Wembley Stadium, he was quickly recognised as a man with both the stamina and the skills. So has Newman succeeded in giving the city a newfound status?

"It would be arrogant for me to answer that question," says Newman, who became communications director of the Liverpool Culture Company (LCC) in 2005. "Firstly, we're only half way through the year and secondly, it ultimately has to be up to others to decide. I've always said that all we can do is use 2008 as a showcase for the city, to say this is what's on offer and promote it. Beyond that, it's up to others to make the judgements."

With 600 journalists having visited Liverpool so far this year and over 5,000 articles having featured the European Capital of Culture – 94 per cent of which have had a positive or neutral tone, according to the LCC – Newman can afford to speak with such self-assurance. These journalists have reported on everything from the 350 events programmed throughout the year – highlights of which include the Tall Ships Race, the National ballet of China visiting Merseyside and Sir Paul McCartney's rock concert – to the impact that the project is having on regeneration, social inclusion, education and business.

Particularly rewarding for Newman is the fact that 68 per cent of the media coverage has been outside the north-west, reaching as far as New York. "On a recent Friday night in the city centre, the vibe is almost South Beach-like", reported the Wall Street Journal in March. "Where there was once an old tea warehouse, designer-driven hotels and restaurants are opening".

Liverpool as Capital of Culture hasn't done badly with the broadcast media either, having enjoyed extensive news coverage on BBC, Sky News, ITN and Channel 4 as well as having a dedicated Antiques Roadshow special, a Time Team special, and appearances on a wide range of other prime-time programmes.

"If you'd have asked me last December whether we would still have the scale of interest that we have five months in, I'd have said no, the media will probably have run out of stories," admits Newman. "But because it's not one-dimensional – and not just a front- or back-page story – the media interest continues. One day I have journalists coming to me saying they need to do a piece on businesses for the biggest newspaper in Japan; the next day someone wants to do a profile on Phil Redmond for ArtsProfessional – and then there's everything in between."

Newman was especially heartened by Jonathan Margolis's lead story in the Mirror in February, headlined "Liverpool: I Love You". Having provoked a very public fall-out with the city's residents 15 years before when he suggested that they were a self-pitying lot, Margolis famously wrote this year that he had discovered a city that's "utterly stunning". "To be honest, all the stuff I'd read about urban regeneration and the fact that Liverpool had been crowned European Capital of Culture 2008 sounded like so much boring official-ese," he admitted. "But trust me, they're building one of the modern wonders of the world beside that grey choppy old Mersey.

"If Phil Redmond had written that, people would say, 'Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?'," says Newman. "But if you get someone who has been so anti-Liverpool saying it then it's more important than anything we say."

The "we" that Newman refers to is a four-strong team – a team that he consistently reiterates does not work in isolation. "It's the collective strength of the message from the city, the collaborative PR effort, that is currently making the impact," he says.

But Newman is the first to admit that the PR ride hasn't been altogether smooth. There were resignations over the fight for independence of the LCC; there was trouble surrounding the artistic director, Robyn Archer, who left in 2007; and after seven weeks on sick leave, the company's chief executive, Jason Harborow, quit just days before the opening ceremony. In January, Mark Hughes reported in The Independent that the opening night's celebrations "could have been held to cheer the fact that Capital of Culture year is even happening at all".

A particularly sticky moment was the criticism the LCC faced in 2005 just after he'd started in his role: "We couldn't make public what was coming up until we'd dealt with the intricate contracts with the artists and dealt with the budgets, but we were heavily criticised for not knowing what would be on the agenda," he recalls.

Nevertheless, well-versed in dealing with high-profile problems at the FA, Newman used his PR skills to soften the blows and keep everyone focused. It helped that prior to his FA role, Newman had spent more than 20 years as a correspondent for BBC News, ITV and Sky News – as well as two spells as a reporter and presenter for TV North West. It meant that the media trusted him. In fact, it was only when he was reporting on the Sydney Olympics that moving into PR first entered his mind. "I received a call from a former colleague who'd moved to the FA asking if I was interested. Until that time, I'd never even considered PR. But ultimately, I felt if I said no I'd never get the chance again," he says.

Despite the teething problems for Liverpool's big year, the curtain was lifted in January as planned, with two key events marking the launch. Newman attributes luck as much as PR to their success. "We were fortunate because the news agenda was quiet, so we got particularly phenomenal broadcast exposure," he admits.

He adds that there are a number of other factors that have helped keep up the momentum. "First, the quality of the events. Second, the economic drivers that have come from the 10,000-seat arena being built, which is bringing in artists who have never been to the city before. And third, the inevitable effect of the new retail development, Liverpool ONE."

The media cynicism has not disappeared. Only this month, a reviewer of the McCartney concert in The Guardian couldn't resist pointing to a recent report from the Department of Communities and Local Government that found Liverpool is still England's most deprived district, with new investment spurred by its Capital of Culture status having failed to boost local income or employment.

But other reports are more optimistic, showing wealth generation increasing at levels above the national and North-west averages. "In the end, everyone stands to gain, whether it's a corner shop or Grosvenor unveiling Liverpool ONE," says Newman.

Paul Newman is speaking at the World Public Relations Conference, at the InterContinental Hotel, Park Lane, London on 23-24 June. Visit www.cipr.co.uk/wprf08

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