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The Message is Plane!

Metrolink steals a march on Midland Metro's royal day. How did Manchester manage to get the local evening newspaper so well on-side? By Bob Tarr Secretary General LRTA

Picture the scene! A warm, sunny day. Fire brigade band resplendent in highly polished helmets. Excited school-children waving flags. Crowds of local people, Civic dignitaries and their spouses hung with chains and in their best suits and frocks. VIPs by the tram-full. Members of Parliament. Even a Government Minister. Arrival of Princess Royal to perform Royal Opening Ceremony... and then.....

Now this wouldn't make a bad opening for a novel, would it? (I must put it on one side for possible future use). Anyway, back to the real world. What happened next?

A little plane. In the blue sky that graced the Royal Opening of Midland Metro Line One on 14 September 1999 in Wolverhampton town centre, a little aeroplane appeared. Buzzing steadily. Flying in lazy circles. Distracting the assembled crowds and VIPs. What’s this? It appeared to be towing something... Yes, a giant banner - what does it say? "Don’t forget Manchester’s Metrolink".

Shock, horror. All eyes move to Councillor Joe Clarke, Chairman of the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority and his colleagues at the Opening, including Bill Tyson. Was this their wicked wheeze? Had they used the West Midlands’ big day to get publicity for their campaign to extend the Manchester Metrolink?

Joe Clarke denied all knowledge of the affair and looked uncomfortable. En route to Birmingham Snow Hill on VIP tram number 2 (Number 1 had taken the Princess Royal to the Midland Metro Depot and Control Centre at Wednesbury) the Manchester contingent sat quietly, ostracised by those who thought that the plane with its banner was not quite the thing. Not really playing the game, you know, not quite cricket.

After transfer from Birmingham Snow Hill metro terminus to the International Convention Centre by one of West Midlands Travel’s new kneeling bendi-buses (the next generation of these buses will have legs to leapfrog over traffic jams), the Manchester delegation sought out the fax machine to which had been summoned by urgent mobile phone calls a copy of the front page of the Manchester Evening News’s lunch-time edition on which already there was a picture of the offending aerial buzzcock, and its banner, and the headline: "The message is plane: Remember our Metro" and a photo of the Princess Royal appearing to look skywards.

So the truth was out! Joe Clarke was not to blame (though he did look a bit piqued that neither he or his officials had thought of such a good idea). The Manchester contingent, having been sent to Coventry, had returned to Birmingham and could be talked to again.

The Official Luncheon to celebrate the opening of Midland Metro proceeded without further incident.

But here, I thought, is a most interesting story. Peter Snape MP, Chairman of Travel West Midlands, the operators of Midland Metro, referred in his speech to the anti-Metro stance that one of the Birmingham newspapers has been taking recently and it is well known that one of the problems that has dogged the Sheffield Supertram has been the anti-Supertram stance of the Sheffield Star..

So what was going on in Manchester - and why the difference?

I contacted the News Editor of the Manchester Evening News, who told me that her newspaper had supported Manchester Metrolink since its conception and, yes, the plane with its banner was their wheeze - not to spoil Midland Metro’s big day but to get publicity for the pro-Metrolink campaign which the Manchester Evening News was running. I also talked to Alan Salter, the newspaper’s Transport Correspondent who gave me the full history of his paper’s support for Metrolink since its very early days. Basically, he said, the paper was in favour of anything which was good for the city and its region and they had been persuaded at an early point that Metrolink was good for Greater Manchester and this was why they had backed it. The newspaper has criticised when this was needed, he said, but their fundamental view was that Metrolink was in Manchester’s interest and so was development of the full network of Metrolink lines.

The newspaper decided on a new campaign of support when in June this year John Prescott said that LRT was very expensive and buses could do the job. It had launched the campaign on July 30, the day when Manchester’s Local Transport Plan was loged with the Government and which argued that £500m of work could be achieved for £250m if the three proposed Metrolink extensions are undertaken as one project. The newspaper thought this made good sense.Its campaign had kicked off with the Editor, Paul Horrocks, writing an open letter to Mr Prescott and since then the paper had run at least one feature on Metrolink each week, with coupons in the newspaper for people to fill in and add their names to a pro-Metrolink petition which the Editor aimed to present to the Deputy Prime Minister later this autumn when he came to open the new extension to Salford Quays. The aim was to get at least 10,000 names on the petition and based on progress so far this would easily be achieved. The newspaper was also handing out pro-Metrolink car stickers. Alan Salter also said he was going to be speaking in favour of Metrolink at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference.

Alan admitted the aerial banner idea had been his and that his Editor had suffered a sharp intake of breath when he had been asked to approve the cost of hiring the plane and banner - but he had done so.

It’s not too often that one hears stories of such positive media support of light rail and for a provincial evening newspaper to actually run a campaign and spend not inconsiderable amounts of its own money to further that campaign is music to my ears.

Obviously the question is "how have they done it in Manchester?" - which, rightly or wrongly, presumes that the promoters of a light rail system (in this case Greater Manchester PTA/PTE) have it within their gift to affect the attitude of the local Press and other Media. The reality, of course, is that it is not quite as simple as asking whether the PTA/PTE fostered good relations with the Press because it is possible that a newspaper may adopt a stance on a particular system for reasons which have little or nothing to do with the media relations endeavours of the LRT promoters. In the case of Manchester, Alan Salter put it down to there being a good relationship with the PTA and PTE over the years but the most important factor was his newspaper’s conclusion, reached a long time ago, that Manchester Metrolink was fundamentally A GOOD THING for Manchester and its people.

I suspect that good communications and effective briefings by the PTA/PTE in the very early days helped the newspaper make its mind up about this and the dividend has been practically unwavering support. Alan Salter said that the newspaper had always perceived the PTA/PTE as being open and willing to talk about its proposals and problems and he said that if they had ever had the feeling that things were being done in secret and that they were being excluded, their attitude could have been very different.

So there’s the message guys and gals (with apologies to those readers who think my using this expression is undignified in such a serious journal). Get your local media on-side by being open with them, sharing problems and plans, talking with them all the time. The reward can be the happy situation in Manchester where the local newspaper is taking on - and even paying for - part of the effort of campaigning for extensions. Compare this with the price you will pay if you don‘t by looking at Sheffield where the continual, relentless criticism of Supertram has had a real, perceptible negative effect on the success, certainly in its early days, of what, in any purely rational analysis, is an excellent LRT system which many cities would die to have.

Of course, what is impossible to say is whether South Yorkshire PTA/PTE ever had any chance of persuading the Sheffield Star to take a more positive attitude to Supertram. From what I know of the Sheffield saga, and having in the past encountered a newspaper which had decided as a matter of principle to oppose virtually anything proposed by a public authority, I have my doubts that they could have done so - but the lesson for promoters of future LRT schemes is that it is worth an awful lot of effort early on to get your local media to be as enthusiastically in favour of your system as you are - the prize is a valuable one and you may succeed.

Bob Tarr

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