Press and Public Reaction
‘There’s no precedent for a project like Silica in Weston-super-Mare. You could do it with little comment in Bristol or London. But here there are challenges’ (Mark Luck). At times it was very challenging indeed. Members of the public shouted abuse and pinned protest letters to the metal cage around Silica during its installation. Sometimes people working inside the cage even had to ‘make a run for it’ when they needed to step outside.
There were impassioned letters and vitriolic articles in the local papers, which called Silica 'the carrot'. At its worst, the press was asking ‘why can’t we do this regeneration without the art?’
However, the council’s press office was fully prepared and Stephen Makin, Marketing and Communications Officer, was assigned to the project early on. He devised a media communications plan and set up the protocol that all information would be sent out by the press office after consultation with the stakeholders.
Stephen held two or three press briefings, sent out regular press releases, and set up photo opportunities and interviews with Wolfgang Buttress. He also regularly sent responses to the letters pages.
He explains, ‘there was a lot of misinformation about cost, and about who was paying for it. We pointed out that it wasn’t local taxes and gave financial information. We never went down the road of people’s views being wrong. We only reacted to factual inaccuracies.’
Mark Luck adds, ‘we had a policy of not taking offence, ever, and that seemed to work. It disarmed people.’ In the middle of the carrot episode, for example, the council issued a press release referring to the sculpture as being ‘affectionately known as the carrot’. This proved to be a surprisingly effective way of drawing the sting.
There have been objections from within the council, too. Fortunately however, and despite having a narrow majority, Councillor John Crockford-Hawley has championed the project throughout. He explains: ‘if politicians perceive something as worthwhile they have to press ahead. It’s about not being run-of-the-mill. The fact that it’s hugely controversial is its success. It’s an iconic structure that refocuses public attention.’
Lesley Greene, too, has given invaluable moral support throughout. ‘You have to surround yourself with people who believe what you believe in. When everything was condemned, there was a shared grieving process’ (Mark Luck).
Gradually the reactions of the public and the press shifted. On Remembrance Sunday, John Crockford-Hawley remembers, ‘there were cheers when the spire was slotted into place and people came up to me and said they’d changed their minds.’ However, as Mark Luck admits, ‘It’s young people, in general, who like it, not the diehards’.
A lesson learned
It was crucial for the team to remain optimistic and to have very high expectations, even when public opinion was very much against the project. However, this could sometimes give councillors, the press and the public the impression that progress was imminent, and this led to difficulties when there were delays. It became clear that it was necessary to 'outwardly give a more cautious view and to develop internal and external ways of communicating about the project' (Mark Luck).
'Here comes the carrot: Controversial artwork gets the go-ahead from council', article as appeared in the Bristol Evening Post, 23.11.05, reproduced with permission. Document in Adobe Acrobat format, 653 KB.
'Countdown to Silica as work begins', article as appeared in the Weston Mercury, 21.03.06, reproduced with permission. Document in Adobe Acrobat format, 524 KB.