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Crisis Management and Media Relations: the Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and the i360

The i360: Crisis Management and Media Relations: Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and the i360

The i360: Crisis Management & Media Relations: Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and the i360

Brighton & Hove City Council has won its battle NOT to disclose details of the business case presented to it four years ago by the i360 attraction to secure a £36million Council loan. But what does this strange affair say about about the Council’s approach to crisis management and media relations regarding the i360?

To recap on the story, Brighton & Hove city councillors decided to make the controversial loan to the i360 in 2013, after it had lost private financial backing, on the basis of a commissioned 35-page business case.

Freelance journalist John Keenan – a Brighton-based reporter – subsequently made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to see this business case but the Council refused to release it.

The Council’s own internal review, predictably, upheld the Council’s decision, and Mr Keenan appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which ruled the business case should be released.

Earlier this month (March 2017), that decision was overturned by a crown court decision, as reported by the local newspaper, The Argus.

So, the i360million’s business case to borrow £36million of public money remains confidential. Brighton & Hove council tax payers are still in the dark about why their local authority lent this enormous sum to an unproven seaside tourist attraction.

Or, indeed, why the Council felt compelled to shell out £36,000 of taxpayers’ cash on legal costs to keep the business case hush-hush.

Just why is Brighton & Hove Council so determined to keep the public from seeing a four-year-old business case for the i360?

Crisis Communication

And how has it handled the crisis management and media relations of this affair?

The business case is said to contain details of how much money the i360 was hoping, back in 2013, to make from admissions, merchandise and food and drink sales and so on over its first 10 years – from 2016-25.

The Council argued that disclosure of this information would allow “competitors” to adjust their ticket, merchandising and catering prices to compete more effectively, possibly leading to the collapse of the i360 as a business.

But who are these rivals? There is no other business in Brighton & Hove offering an attraction remotely similar to the i360: essentially a ride in a transparent doughnut up and down a 162metre-high pole.

The vast majority of businesses in the city are small and, clearly, not in direct competition with this towering behemoth.

The few substantial seafront businesses such as Brighton Pier and The Sea Life Centre, are very different beasts.

The Pier has free admission and comprises many small businesses. It is nothing like the i360.

The Sea Life Centre is again an utterly different attraction, essentially an aquarium, and clearly not a fancy elevator or vertical cable car.

The big hotels, such as The Grand and the Metropole, also offer a different product. To state the blooming obvious, they are hotels.

To my knowledge, the i360 is not a hotel. Certainly, hotels sell food and drink as the i360 attraction does, but hundreds of retailers on Brighton & Hove seafront also do that. And they are also all nothing like the i360.

Moreover, the i360’s prices are not very confidential. You only have to visit the beanpole to find out how much it costs to go up and down, eat and drink in its restaurant and purchase its merchandising.

Standard ticket prices are also on the i360 website.

And as the attraction is trying to sell its services, it would not take much artifice to find out the corporate prices for, say, hiring the facilities for an evening or an afternoon. And, anyway, how meaningful would revenue predictions made four years ago be?

Therefore, why the Council felt compelled to waste £36,000 of public money on keeping old pricing guestimates under wraps is a mystery to me.

Now let’s look at the crisis management and media relations handling of this issue.

When journalist John Keegan put in his Freedom of Information request, the Council was faced with a clear choice: reveal the business case or try to suppress it.

At the time, I understand, all that Mr Keenan was hoping for a down-page story for a trade magazine for which he was writing.

If the information had been released, it might well have appeared as a six to 10-paragraph story and that could have been the end of it.

The reason he pursued the story was because the Council did not cooperate with his Freedom of Information request. No journalist likes being pointlessly fobbed off.

If it had released the information, the Council would have appeared open and transparent to the public, which, funnily enough, it claims is its policy.

Supposing the plan had contained, say, over-optimistic predictions for visitor figures or revenues, the Council’s crack (or crap?) media relations team could have explained the reasons these figures were deemed reasonable at that time and got the bad news out of the way.

If it had been picked up by the local press (by no means a certainty), the following day, or at most the following week, the story would have been fish and chip paper.

Back in 2014, before the i360 attraction was built, I attended a Brighton & Hove Chamber of Commerce luncheon at which the guest speaker was the then i360 Chief Executive Eleanor Harris.

She was typically upbeat about its prospects, predicting that not only would it be a massive success, but it would also greatly boost the overall number of visitors to Brighton & Hove and make a gigantic contribution to the economy of the city.

I left the lunch with my head spinning, wondering if she could possibly be right in thinking the i360 would turn the city into a super-attraction destination for visitors.

Would it have an incredible impact on the lives of the people in Brighton & Hove, driving the local economy upwards and pushing property prices still higher?

At that lunch, I recall Eleanor Harris saying another very interesting thing: that the loan was actually a great source of revenue for Brighton & Hove City Council, because it had borrowed the money at a very low interest rate from a central Government fund, the Public Works Loan Board, and was charging the i360 a higher interest rate, thus making a substantial annual profit for the people of Brighton & Hove.

I recall the figure of £1million a year being mentioned, a number also recorded on the i360’s Wikipedia page.

Well, with the help of the Council loan and another £10million from Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership, the architects, Marks Barfield, had enough money to get the i360 built, and it was eventually completed and launched in August 2016.

i360 Launch Gremlin:  Crisis Management and Media Relations: Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and i360 Blog Posting

i360 Launch Gremlin: Crisis Management & Media Relations: Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and i360 Blog Posting

I recall the launch event that I attended was a little ropey with delays, a technical hitch, guests herded around like sheep and, at one point, a contractor shouting at us, because we had been led into a forbidden area, still under construction.

Not slick PR by a long shot – especially with then Editor of the Brighton Argus present!

But, eventually, we were allowed into the glass pod, went up and down the pole, listening to the architects’ and CEO’s speeches made through a distinctly dodgy PA system.

It felt like everything was happening on a wing and a prayer.

Marketing whiz Ms Harris made her name turning around the fortunes of the London Eye, the former Millennium Wheel, but it strikes me that the Wheel and the i360 are quite dissimilar.

The Eye enjoys the most amazing views over our Capital, overlooking Parliament, looking into the garden of Number 10 Downing Street and as far as Windsor Castle on a clear day, and a genuinely massive potential audience of tourists visiting one of the world’s most popular destinations.

View from i360: Crisis Management & Media Relations: Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and i360 Blog Posting

View from i360: Crisis Management & Media Relations: Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and i360 Blog Posting

On the other hand, the i360 has the samey sea on one side and the rather scrappy looking Brighton & Hove from the air on the other. Much as I love Brighton & Hove, it looks better from the ground.

The problem it has, I believe, is that once you have experienced the i360, you are unlikely to want to go up again. What would be the point? Furthermore, not everyone in Brighton & Hove will go up even once. A lot of the locals are not interested.

I believe the i360 desperately needs to get the people of Brighton & Hove on its side – and it has miserably failed to do that.

It has not been great at PR. In fact, it hardly seems to have tried. Without good “word-of-mouth” from the local community, even the tourists will not get excited by the i360.

It did not help that what was called for much of its development the “Brighton i360” suddenly became the “British Airways i360” on the back of a long-term title-sponsorship deal.

I am not aware of any other major commercial company that has been allowed to have a prime chunk of the Brighton & Hove seafront turned into an enormous advertisement hoarding promoting its brand.

No doubt the i360 needs the money, but it seems inappropriate when the majority of the money to build it has come from the public purse, not British Airways.

Moreover, I would question whether their branding tie-up will ultimately do either business a lot of good. \

British Airways is receiving pretty mixed reviews for its service these days – as relentlessly cuts costs and abandons good customer service – and being associated with a high-risk seaside ride and venue is not necessarily going to help matters.

The i360 has made a big deal of putting its staff in British Airways uniforms and calling the journeys “flights”, but I don’t know anyone who is taken in. It is all too silly for words!

How well was this decision to jump in bed with British Airways thought through?

What was the advice given by the Council’s crisis management and media relations specialists on this controversial move?

Or was the i360 simply given a free rein to do what it liked with the publicly funded attraction’s name?

360, called 'The Brighton Pipe' by Sir Simon Jenkins: Crisis Management & Media Relations: Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and i360 Blog Posting

i360, called ‘The Brighton Pipe’ by Sir Simon Jenkins: Crisis Management & Media Relations: Strange Case of Brighton & Hove City Council and i360 Blog Posting

Certainly, out and about in Brighton, the i360 does not seem to have won over public opinion.

At a heritage dinner in the city, the former National Trust Chairman and ex-Editor of The Times, Sir Simon Jenkins, dismissively renamed it “the Brighton Pipe”.

And I have heard Brighton & Hove people describe it variously as “the i-Sore”, “a gimmick”, “a phallic symbol” and, rather rudely in Kemptown, where they miss the Brighton Wheel (which was not allowed to stay because of the i360’s agreement with the Council spurred on by the then i360 Chief Executive Eleanor Harris), the “c**k and c**kring”.

I also overheard a visitor this weekend look up at the i360 and remark to his wife and children: “It’s a chimney stack, isn’t it?”

Overall, it does not seem to be inspiring a lot of confidence.

Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising when public money has been gambled on a venture that is so shrouded in secrecy.

The Council sees the i360 as a “city asset” and is terrified of anything that could cause it to fail. But is it more of a city liability?

i360 Crisis Management and Media Relations

I would like to know what contingency plans have been drawn up by Brighton & Hove in event of the i360 going bust.

Would the Council step up to the plate and take it over, pouring in good money after bad? Or it would the i360 remain in situ, unused, like a giant rusting fag end?

If the worst came to the worst, how much would it cost to dismantle and demolish the i360?

Does Brighton & Hove City Council even know? And would the Council foot the bill?

Moreover, how does the West Pier Trust fit into the picture. I am not alone in wondering what the purpose of the West Pier Trust is.

Not only has it failed to save or rebuild the West Pier as originally intended, but it has allowed something entirely different, less attractive and more corporate to be constructed on its land.

I would love to know how much rent the West Pier Trust receives from the i360 (I have heard a fantastic figure bandied around in heritage circles).

And, also when is the West Pier Trust going to make public a plan for rebuilding the West Pier? But that’s another subject.

Almost no one wants to see the i360 to fail as a business but it would be madness for the Council not to plan ahead in case it does.

Risk Management, Crisis Management and Media Relations Planning

That’s what risk management, crisis management and media relations planning is all about.

I would love to know what risk management and crisis management planning has been done by the Council on this – but, after Mr Keenan’s experience, there would be little point in putting in a Freedom of Information request to try to find out.

John Keenan is philosophical about losing his FoI battle with Brighton & Hove Council over the i360, commenting sensibly: “The decision is a blow to those who believe the rise of the ‘entrepreneurial council’ requires transparency and accountability.

“We must hope in this instance that the Council has done its sums properly.”

I agree with that sentiment.

But keeping the financials of this mainly publicly funded attraction and venue top secret is not helping, when the i360 desperately needs the full support and good will of the people of Brighton & Hove to become a resounding success.

Update: the i360 was grounded today (26 March 2017) following yet another technical failure, on Mother’s Day (there have been around a dozen so far, one of which closed it down for a week).

I have seen the i360 restaurant – which I understand was intended to subsidise the operation – mostly deserted on many occasions. Have the airport lounge ambience and £20 cost of gourmet burgers something to do with this?

* This article is the personal view of the author who is a Brighton-based crisis management and crisis communication training, media relations and media training specialist, working in London and Sussex.