Book Now: plot thickens and then vanishes in a book row in Richmond

August 25, 2009

What has Richmond Council lost here?

“Author and journalist Lynn Barber has withdrawn from a literary festival after the local council refused to include a photograph of her smoking in its brochure for the [Book Now literary festival] event.”

“A Richmond council spokesman said: ‘We don’t like to use images of people smoking in our promotional material. As a local authority we are responsible for encouraging good health habits in the area, and to be seen to be endorsing smoking, no matter how unintentional, doesn’t complement this. We asked Miss Barber for an alternative picture but she declined and has withdrawn from the festival, which is a shame given her standing as an author and journalist’.”

Answers on a postcard please:

A. face

B. the plot

C. all sense of proportion

D. credibility in the literary community, which is not quite as niche as they might think and lives in their borough

E. the ability to apply differentiating brand guidelines to their own projects

F. money

G. all of the above?

This is a difficult one. It’s not exactly copyriting and it’s not exactly PR – because Richmond Council stuck to its guidelines, you can’t say it’s branding. But it is all those things. It’s about how Richmond council thinks about its messages, and how it acts on those messages.

The council, as we know, exists to provide vital services. Nowadays it is also common for local authorities to provide leisure activities (“services”) too, branching out from libraries, youth services, parks departments. In this case, Richmond Council ventures into arts promotion.

Why? Because it values diversity and creative expression. From its website: “The Arts Service at Orleans House Gallery works to deliver innovative and accessible arts for residents and visitors of the Borough. We organise and encourage all forms of creative development, from visual arts to dance, drama, music, film and literature.”

But it then applies the same rigid criteria to its arts projects as it does to its community services, health projects, education outreach and youth programmes.

It forgets that, if it is going to address everybody who lives in the borough, across all walks of life and areas of  human activity, it must tailor its messages. Because you don’t talk to everybody at the same time.

It must think of two things.

1. the audience

2. relevance to the subject at hand

Is the council really recognising diversity? It doesn’t look like it. It looks as if the council adopts a One Size Fits All policy.

Is the audience for the Book Now literary festival a group that is really likely to be vulnerable to subliminal messages about smoking?

Does the Book Now festival carry any individual branding of its own, or are the council’s guidelines exactly the same as for every single activity it undertakes, from street-sweeping to youth work to arts festivals?

Why is the council trying to run a literary festival, of all things, if their real agenda – the one that takes precedence – is about setting a good example for healthy living?

Does the council really think that the arts are just a propaganda exercise?

If Lynn Barber had showed up, she would have read from her book about being a teenager having an affair with an older man. Would they have insisted that she give a safe sex lecture?

Why was she invited in the first place if she didn’t fit with the council’s agendas?

Will the extended literary community still feel the same level of confidence in the festival now?

Will they still “book now“?

Pictures can be jargon too. The council insists on using a picture (instead of a word) only in the way it has been decided the council will use pictures. In my previous post on jargon I said that when you use words according to a meaning you have assigned to them, rather than their real meaning,  it’s jargon. Here the council has tried to turn an image of Lynn Barber into jargon. They’re forgetting that it only intended as a picture of a specific person, Lynn Barber, who was invited by them. It wasn’t meant to be a healthy-living ad.

Ms Barber has said she is very happy to be a “smoking martyr.” “If a pic of me smoking is such a threat to the good burghers of Richmond, imagine what my presence would do,” she said.”

Of course, her presence would not be a threat to the people of Richmond. The council has allowed its fear of risk, its need for jargon, to undermine its intended message.

Festival programmer Nathan Hamilton says: “The situation is a little bit ridiculous, as elsewhere we’ve got Martin Amis pictured with a lighter in his hand… I mean, if every writer who smoked and drank pulled out of a literary festival, that would probably rule out most writers; you wouldn’t be left with much of a literary festival.”

(According to Hamilton, but edited out of the Guardian article, Amis’ lighter may have passed muster because it looks like a push pop.)

It would have been so easy not to make this rudimentary public relations mistake. By insisting that this literary festival leaflet conform to the content restrictions of teen health leaflets, day care services leaflets, under-5s leaflets, the council has lost the plot. It has forgotten that creative development is about curiosity. It’s about asking, not telling. That there is a whole world out there that isn’t about trying to control people’s behaviour.

And that world includes arts festivals.

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6 Responses to “Book Now: plot thickens and then vanishes in a book row in Richmond”

  1. Ben said

    Part of the problem is that councils think that lesser mortals also think like bureaucrats. We don’t.

    Some bod will have seen that picture and thought: “My God, if that gets picked up by the press we’ll look really stupid.” So someone then makes the problem worse by trying to stamp on it, thereby making the council look more stupid than it possibly could have done in the first instance.

    Rather like our dear old Hackney Council stamping on Iain Sinclair’s book because it criticised them. Net result, egg on face and a huge boost in sales for Sinclair. Ker-ching!

  2. mopsa said

    I adore Lynn Barber – what a lost opportunity. Katy, your new blog is a cracker – but the font is rather small – I dont wear glasses but it’s making me squint.

  3. Tom said

    I have to say it looks more like random stroppiness from Lynn Barber. After all, simply asking someone to provide another picture is hardly extreme behaviour. I’m a smoker myself, and this seems to be on a par with not smoking in someone else’s home; hardly a cause to martyr oneself for. Did Lynn Barber suddenly get a better offer that weekend, or does she want the publicity?

  4. msbaroque said

    Thanks guys. Thanks Tom for the refreshing viewpoint! You may have a point there but I still think the whole thing was avoidable, and silly.

    I think Ben’s right, though, and it’s an own goal. I can see me, in that job, having done the same thing – that’s partly what’s so galling about it – but ultimately if Richmond had been more professional and hadn’t been mixing their messages this wouldn’t have happened.

    Mopsa – I was thinking the same thing. I’ll get on it.

  5. ngap said

    One of public relations mistake is when we fail to embrace the kind of PR plan that persuades those important outside audiences to our way of thinking … anyway nice to read this article. Thanks

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