Six years of disruption caused by the Eleftheria square project have been bad enough, but the town hall made it far worse in 2017 by making basic public relations mistakes, says Angelos Anastasiou
According to public-relations academics, rule number one of managing a public-relations disaster is keeping control of the story, and the best way to do that is by engaging early on and divulging any info that can be divulged. If not the whole, then most of the ball game is filling that air-time and those newspaper columns with what you – thus, not the other guys – said.
Plagued with the mother of all PR-disasters, the dreaded “when will the Eleftheria square be finished” question as construction entered its sixth year, the Nicosia municipality went for a different strategy. First, it ignored the problem in hopes that progress in construction would make nosy journalists disappear, or at least shut up, then issued assurances that everything was on course and dishing out completion dates.
By March 2017, neither option was tenable – instead of visible signs that construction of the square was pressing ahead, the contractors had just tarmacked a makeshift passage they had created to serve the people who wished to use the road adjacent to the old square, which had been closed for construction. And the completion dates came and went, one after the next, with each pledge carrying less and less credibility. The Eleftheria square was fast becoming a two-word joke among the public. The officials behind the project – Nicosia mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis and the municipality’s project director Agni Petridou – needed a ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment (ill-advised and premature, sure, just like Bush W’s, but one that could make some positive noise nonetheless).
It was against this backdrop that journalists were invited to enter the construction site – previously sealed off to anyone without eyes-only access – and receive the grand tour by the contractor and the project director. It sounded like a come-see-for-yourselves PR stunt, in which reporters were supposed to walk away stunned, mouths gaping in awe over what has been accomplished, but, as it turned out, the tour was accompanied by yet another swear-to-God pledge – this time from the horse’s mouth. The bridge, the contractor told the huddled reporters with a confident smile, would be opened by the end of the summer, and the whole thing would be done by year-end. It came as a surprise to no one that neither promise was kept.
Despite being super-careful to keep a safe distance from the political toxicity of the Eleftheria square debacle from very early on, mayor Yiorkadjis was also there and made some brief remarks for the cameras, in those fire-engine red hardhats we were all asked to wear (very theatrical, very in-the-thick-of-it), ensuring the general public would also get the virtual tour in the 8 o’clock news. But he skipped the actual tour, citing a bad back, and was promptly holed up back in his office. In his remarks, he deferred to the two experts and made no hard promises. Whatever else he may be, lacking in political instinct the mayor is not.
And then there was the tour. A collection of unimpressive-looking half-finished parts that may or may not eventually add up to a spectacular whole, the site must surely have been construction born to builders and architects, but to the layman’s eyes it was, well, a construction site. Things got even stranger when we were asked to “imagine” trees that will sprout up here or a futuristic 100-metre-long concrete railing that the architect wants poured as a single piece (which is, apparently, unthinkable) there. I caught myself wondering whether I might have been missing something. I looked around and the bewildered expressions I saw suggested I probably wasn’t.
Still, it was a win, albeit a short-term one. All the papers and all the TV stations ran the story and had pictures and footage from inside the site – which was a pretty big deal, after all, since they were the first made available in the six-year-long saga. Unfortunately, they all also reported the end-of-summer and end-of-year deadlines. The win backfired in the waning days of the summer, when one after another people started remembering it was about time for the bridge to be delivered. The jokes returned with a vengeance.
The Eleftheria square is now an unsalvageable mess from a PR perspective, but for some reason I can’t help muse on various what-if scenarios. In none of these are journalists left to find out any major developments – positive or negative – on their own. These are always announced from municipal headquarters, and the reasons behind them explained in as much detail as possible. (Crucially, any financial impact is invariably addressed, too.) On the contrary: journalists’ enquiries are never left unanswered, even on an off-the-record basis, and “we have no comment” is strictly verboten. And, for God’s sake, if anyone is to be convinced that the municipality is pulling out all the stops, put a face on the effort using the mayor’s political capital from his landslide re-election.