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On Friday, the Economist published a far from flattering portrait of Birmingham headlined: ‘Second city, second class.’ David Kuczora, chairman of PRCA FrontLine in the Midlands, assesses the local media’s reaction to that piece and asks whether its criticism was deserved.
It had all been going so well for Birmingham. A New York Times hack spent a whistlestop 36 hours here in January, describing us as “big-shouldered, friendly and fun”. Olive Magazine named us the food capital of Britain. And Usain Bolt urged the world to "big up Birmingham" after grabbing gold at the Olympics.
Then on a bright and chilly Friday morning on a commuter train into the city centre, my Twitter feed began to fill with reaction to a piece in The Economist which paints a less than rosy picture of the place I adopted as my home since coming here to study at Birmingham Conservatoire nearly a decade ago. Unemployment, urban deprivation and a shocking infant mortality rate. A lamentable public transport infrastructure. And then that old chestnut - we’re awful at getting the message out about the things we ARE actually good at.
The piece was clearly designed to provoke a reaction. There’s nothing better than lighting the blue touch paper by slagging off a place, grabbing a toffee apple and sitting back to watch the social media fireworks fly. But surprisingly the reaction I saw was hardly incendiary.
“All valid points,” wrote Neil Houston, a blogger interested in gin and shiny buildings. “We are having a lot of good new construction projects, but core transport services are lacking. Hard due to public purse.” The majority of responses seemed to echo that theme - yes, the piece is a bit sharp but it is broadly correct. The city isn’t perfect. It has its problems.
“Whenever there’s media comment on Birmingham, the city’s hacks and flacks usually hyperventilate more than a Parliamentary aide during a David Cameron ‘This Morning’ interview,” says Keith Gabriel on email to me. Keith is a fellow PR and writes a regular column for the Birmingham Post. And he’s right.
When Usain Bolt made that now famous namecheck, within hours Marketing Birmingham was rallying a campaign to #bigupbrum on Twitter and spokesman Ian Taylor was on the sofa for the lunchtime news as head cheerleader for the city. Sky News, Channel 4 News, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail all covered the story. Surely we can’t be accused of not capitalising on a publicity opportunity?
I called Marketing Birmingham when I knew I’d be writing this piece to see what their reaction to The Economist’s piece was. Disappointedly, they declined to offer comment. It’s a shame, reckons Caroline Beavon, a freelance data journalist who produces infographics for The Guardian amongst others.
“It’s the same old hackneyed lines,” she phones to tell me. “I’d love the city to fight back harder when this sort of stuff happens.”
Caroline and I were drinking buddies back when Birmingham’s music scene enjoyed its indie rock resurgence around 2007. She was a presenter and news reporter on Kerrang! Radio and I was a newly-graduated radio plugger trying to get promising young bands played on the station. The Twang made it into the Top 10. Birmingham was cool for the first time since the 70s, it seemed.
“Birmingham really does have a lot to be proud of,” Beavon says. “Our universities are equipping people with the skills needed to flourish in the digital age. We have a wealth of promising tech start-ups based here. We’re not old-fashioned.”
But is the piece actually all that scathing? Not really, reckons Keith Gabriel, “once you get past a headline not half-as clever as the sub-editor evidently thought it was.”
He adds: “That ‘second city’ moniker is now invariably only used by people outside the city, so using it as a stick to bash Birmingham is pointless. The negative focus on manufacturing is a bit one-sided too. Why no reference to Jaguar Land Rover’s stellar success for example?
“But overall, it’s fair in most of its observations. The city HAS been indifferently managed in recent times. The transport system is wonky in the extreme. And the piece features plenty of positives in the form of Birmingham Airport, HS2 and our underrated educational institutions.”
The point made in the article about the city’s poor management is one which seems to have struck a common chord. Marc Reeves, partner at RJF Public Affairs, is an unapologetic supporter of elected mayors, which the city lost the vote on in May this year.
“I agree totally that the biggest thing holding us back is our leadership,” he says. “In Birmingham we have suffered previous leaders who think that if you say everything is great, then it is. It simply is not the case. We need to step up and act like a global city. Acknowledge our shortcomings and work out how to address them. To stop moaning when articles like this come along. The ‘it’s not fair, nobody likes us’ attitude is the sort taken by councils in provincial towns who can’t take criticism.”
Birmingham has a reputation as a self-deprecating city. We work hard at the job in hand, and do so without taking ourselves too seriously. Perhaps not surprising then that the reaction to The Economist’s piece has been, by and large, greeted with a shrug and a punchline.
“Bar the hopeless headline and controversy-courting sub-heading, as a snapshot of where city is presently at, it’s honest and matter-of-fact,” adds Keith Gabriel. “Just like the people of Birmingham, oddly enough.”
I have coffee with Alex Bishop, a partner at law firm Shoosmiths and until recently a board director of Birmingham Forward, an organisation representing the professional services sector in the city. The Big City Plan and major infrastructure changes such as HS2 were being conceived when she first became involved in Forward’s arm for young professionals, Birmingham Future, at the start of her career. These plans are only now being implemented. It will be several more before they are complete.
This, I hope, is how Birmingham will address the issues that The Economist raises. They’re all fair points. So we’ll get on with addressing them, without too much of a showy song-and-dance routine. We’ll aim to create a better Birmingham for the young population still growing up; that 22% currently under the age of 15. It may likely take a generation to create that change, which is a long time between headlines. But hearing reaction from the city’s professionals today makes me confident that it’s change that Birmingham will do its bloody best to make.
David Kuczora is principal consultant at Clive Reeves PR and chairman of PRCA FrontLine in the Midlands
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