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Humble pie and a huge PR coup for the library

Let’s spell out that equation: one Library of Birmingham plus one Malala Yousafzai equals a PR coup that is two (sorry) good to beat.

Nick Wilkinson
Malala Yousafzai gives a speech before officially opening the new Library of Birmingham.

This is the easiest column I’ll ever have to write.

By ‘easy’, I don’t mean I’ll be purely relying upon single-syllable words to ensure this month’s missive is Vinnie Jones-friendly.

When I say ‘easy’, it’s in relation to the topic I’ve chosen. Usually my columns begin with a question that takes me 800 or so words to answer in an unconvincing, rambling, unamusing and contradictory fashion. Not this one. This column will take me 800 or so words, will most likely ramble a bit and be defiantly unamusing. But there’ll be no complications, no controversies and no difficulties in producing a coherent argument today.

This column will redefine ‘straightforward’. If today’s column was an equation, it would be 1+1=2.

Let’s spell out that equation: one Library of Birmingham plus one Malala Yousafzai equals a PR coup that is two (sorry) good to beat.

The PR campaign for the library didn’t augur well. First off, the region’s agencies weren’t handed the tender to deliver the PR. Being a moany, sarky, regional grump, my first reaction to a London PR agency scooping the sizeable Library of Birmingham account was a tad cynical: my first tweet on hearing the news was “For £290k, I expect to see Birmingham Library on the front page of Time Magazine, married to David Beckham and judging The X Factor.”

Early reported anecdotes didn’t help matters, my favourite being a Birmingham Post staffer revealing that Colman Getty, the agency in question, had rung the office asking for an editor that had not been working at the publication since three years prior.

Finally, I had concerns the PR focus was so heavily concentrated on securing national and international coverage, that the people who would prove the greatest advocates for the building – the Birmingham folk themselves – were actually the people least likely to know about the library’s virtues.

Now, having looked at the reams of immensely positive local, national and international news coverage and social commentary I realise that I was wrong.

And, by gum, do I hate being wrong.

Though, unusually, I don’t hate the wrongness as much on this occasion. That’s primarily because a successful Library of Birmingham is an absolute credit to the city. It may seem glib to say it’s been the best thing to happen to Birmingham in an age, but I can’t see that it’s anything but true: it’s talked about, it’s going to be well-visited, it’s accessible, it’s a focal point… it’s everything Millennium Point wishes it could be.

A lacklustre, ill-defined PR campaign could have lessened the library’s impact, so all credit to Colman Getty for structuring a programme that maximised the launch.

The careful drip feed of fascinating details of both the library’s architecture and artefacts has whetted the appetite nicely. The pre-launch teaser visits, generating fulsome praise through social media, helped to crank up anticipation. Thought pieces in the national media have popped up at just the right times to maintain interest.

The PR machine has even managed to lever off the less attractive barnacles on this otherwise pristine news story. Questions are still being asked about cuts to community library services, but the pressure appears to have eased on the council on this front. The hefty cost of appointing Colman Getty is no longer questioned. The heftier cost of the library itself hasn’t caused the friction you might expect it to – though dishing out £189 million to inform, enlighten and educate a million people comparatively feels like money well spent: after all, this is a week when a Welshman in Spain warrants an £85 million fee for running, kicking and divin… sorry, being tackled illegally.

Even Mike Whitby – whose blustering prominence at the Library of Birmingham opening could have bristled with some – was kept under wraps despite his affinity with the project.

 

Then the PR masterstroke took place. It wasn’t just the announcement of the name: it was the timing, one day before launch – perfectly judged, as an earlier announcement would’ve seen the newsworthiness gradually dwindle away.

I’ve bemoaned this city’s reliance on old, predictable celebrities to stand up on behalf of this city. No doubt if the library had opened five years ago, Carrott, Chinn or Jamelia would’ve been lazily wheeled out to cut the proverbial ribbon.

Thankfully, the best person for the job now lives in Birmingham, was available and was chosen.

Her connection to the library notwithstanding, I think Malala Yousafzai is all kinds of amazing, and simply knowing someone of her stature has settled in this city proves Birmingham’s worth. After all, there aren’t many teenage activists living in the UK that have been shot in the head by extremists, yet survived to redouble their efforts to influence change in global youth education. I’m hazarding a guess there may only be one.

Although I’m no big fan of the concept of ‘role models’, I would hope teenagers looking for an icon to reflect their hopes and dreams might consider Malala ahead of, for example, Miley Cyrus.

Certainly any young people present for the library launch would’ve seen Malala deliver an inspirational speech.

Her obvious passion for education, knowledge and self-improvement was the perfect fit for opening a truly 21st century library. Her statement that ‘a city without books in a city without a library is like a graveyard’ has such resonance, Usain Bolt’s ‘Big Up Birmingham!’ doesn’t feel quite as, um, meaningful any more.

The launch of the Library of Birmingham has to be classed as a commendable success, and much of that can be put down to the PR campaign behind it. There’s plenty of work to do now: maintaining visitor numbers, attracting sponsors, ensuring people are talking more about the awe-inspiring interior and perhaps less so about the divisive exterior (I’ve now decided it looks like the metal meshing you find at council dumps, behind which you discard used car batteries). Nevertheless, the foundations have been set by the goodwill generated on September 3. And much of that goodwill can be attributed to the most basic of PR methods – matching the right person to the right message at the right time. Easy.

* Keith Gabriel is a Birmingham-based PR account manager

 

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