1pm update: I’ve just got home (from the table tennis at ExCeL, natch) and found the latest edition of Greenwich Time on my doormat. This headline from the propaganda weekly shows the council’s reputation-first communications policy falling flat on its face – there’ll be a few hollow laughs in Greenwich town centre at this.
I couldn’t get to take a peek for myself, but from the tellybox Greenwich Park looked amazing during Monday’s cross-country event. The day that some predicted would end in crowd crush catastrophe and equine tragedy ended up as nothing of the sort. Instead, it was the best advert for the area since, er, that ITV documentary with John Sergeant the other night. And across south-east London, thousands of people felt their hearts swell with pride as our park – our park, not just belonging to those who live adjacent to it – took on a new identity, and was showed off to the world.
No mysterious holes opening up in the ground, no sewer collapses, no shortages of water, and no bio-terrorist attack requiring the evacuation of an area stretching out to Charlton for several years. All these things seriously predicted by opponents of the Greenwich Park Olympics, still trying to bully local correspondents up until the day of the event. All those things didn’t come to pass, and they’ve been left looking silly, despite their efforts to bully local correspondents for not agreeing with them.
Yet one widespread worry has come to pass – a dramatic drop in trade in Greenwich town centre, as stewards encourage people to go straight between venues and transport hubs. There may well be tourist jam tomorrow, as the coverage encourages visitors, but it’s a thin gruel in central SE10 right now, it seems.
What struck me was the defensive Greenwich Council quote in the BBC’s story from Monday, pinning the blame on LOCOG, just has it has done for the ongoing parking permit mess in this staggeringly self-serving page on its website. That’s the same LOCOG it spent years snuggling up to, of course.
But the council only seems to have reacted once BBC London came calling on Monday, when it could have utilised its clout to help local firms earlier. It’s recruited an army of volunteers, ostensibly to help visitors to the borough (on top of LOCOG’s Games Makers and City Hall’s London Ambassadors).
They’ve been employed to give out a free newspaper called Games Extra, a thinly-disguised copy of The Greenwich Visitor, the free monthly which has proved local papers can still have some life in them. There’s been restrictions on what people can hand out around venues, but the council appears to be exempt.
Instead of advertising in GV, the council decided to compete with it. Like GV, it has a map of local attractions in the middle. It even uses similar headline fonts and has an ad for a skip firm at the foot of its front page. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but not when it’s trying to barge out a locally-run business.
The volunteers have also been handing out leaflets promoting the borough’s attractions as a whole, prefaced by none other than an introduction from council leader Chris Roberts.
All this is part of Greenwich’s terrible habit of prioritising boosting the council’s reputation over anything else. Hence its readiness to point blame anywhere but at itself, its notoriously slow press office, the weekly doses of bull in Greenwich Time, the “Royal Greenwich” banners, and the referring to itself as “the royal borough” like a pound shop Kensington & Chelsea.
This disastrous strategy has finally come to pass during the Olympics. Only a fool would read too much into what goes out on Twitter, but it’s a handy snapshot of the council’s communications policy. Rather than use the short-message medium to promote local businesses, it has provided a running commentary on gold medals won in the borough (other news organisations are available) and retweeted messages warning people to avoid public transport. Clearly the intention was to show off the borough as an exciting place packed to the gills with crowds. But on the other side of the coin, having read all these messages emphasising how busy the place was, who can blame potential visitors to Greenwich from staying at home?
This added to TfL’s notorious messages of doom and gloom – the hated Boris Johnson announcements are now being silenced – while several years of predictions of chaos from certain quarters can’t have helped either.
Thankfully, during Tuesday, Greenwich belatedly started using Twitter to promote local shops, and a meeting was held yesterday to hammer out just what the council can do to help improve things for Greenwich’s shops. Hopefully, this is what’s brought about the barriers coming down. Although the council’s statement still reeks of chest-beating – if the council is frustrated with TfL, why was it retweeting its messages of transport doom and gloom?
A more bizarre situation is the terrible fate of the Peninsula Festival, which has now decided to close its site until 5 August. On Monday night at 9.45, it was closed, dark and deserted.
So much for the £50,000 Greenwich Council coughed up for its community big screen – why wasn’t this promoted by the council’s volunteers standing outside the North Greenwich Arena, handing out council PR material? The place has been the busiest I’ve ever seen it – yet those crowds aren’t going anywhere beyond the cable car station.
This isn’t the time for blame, though. This is the time to put things right. So, what can the council do to rescue matters? What it should have done all along. It should put itself in the background and put local business in front.
No Olympic visitor gives a damn about what’s happening at a school in Kidbrooke – but they do want to know where they can get something to eat, something to drink, somewhere to watch the rest of the action and where they can buy some a present for the folks back home. Something bespoke for each of the three venues – Greenwich, North Greenwich, and Woolwich – would do the trick. It has volunteers to hand out this information – and they can also hand out flyers.
It’s time to bin the council PR, and get doing PR for local businesses instead. It’s time to pull together and support Greenwich’s businesses. Wednesday’s a rest day for the equestrian contests – but Thursday or Friday would also be a good time to visit. Or Saturday, Sunday, Monday…
Greenwich has always suffered from a lack of a common purpose – traders often competing against each other, and the council and landlords pulling in different directions. Hopefully some lessons will be learned, and this experience will forge a real sense of unity in SE10.