If you wanted to mishandle a public relations exercise, you couldn’t do better than St Paul’s Cathedral! Their actions over the last week and a half have demonstrated a stunning failure to get almost anything right. If this was a small parish church this behaviour could be understandable but this organisation enjoys iconic status in England and around the world. This building is emblematic of Britain’s famous blitz spirit. In World War Two it famously survived Hitler’s bombing and became a focal point of the democratic world’s resistance to the Nazis. How times have changed!
The story begins long before Saturday 15th October 2011, when the Occupy London movement set up camp on the Cathedral steps. Such as was any planning for this event, it took place in public on the internet and around the entire world. The Church of England is an international organisation. It follows that at least some people connected with St Paul’s Cathedral must have known what was going to happen on the day the encampment now entrenched on the church steps sprang to life. Certainly the City of London and the landowners of the adjacent Paternoster Square, which is home to the London Stock Exchange, knew what was going to happen. They worked together to throw a police cordon around Paternoster Square, staffed by hundreds of police officers. They were well organised in advance, well briefed and well disciplined. Consequently, the Occupationists could not enter Paternoster Square. Entry would have been briefly possible had the people stooped to violence, even in the lowely form of simply pushing, but they were also disciplined. They had gathered at noon on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in answer to the call to gather peacefully. The date was chosen by a crystalisation of the international conversation, with the result that 971 cities in 82 countries acted in concert. The call went to gather at St Paul’s was initially put out by the same people who had called people to Block the Bridge in London one week before, when thousands of people had blocked a major bridge in London. There had been any number of call outs but this was the one that caught the public mood.
The idea was as conspicuous as it was bold: to set up an occupation camp along the lines already in motion across the United States of America; it was obviously going to be similar to those already enacted in Spain throughout much of the year. There had been much talk of this being London’s Tahrir Square, where the Egyptian Revolution began. That gathering had also begun with some autumnal diehards camping out the year before. Clearly the five thousand people who answered that call intended to gather on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral at noon on Saturday 15th October 2011 knew what they were doing. They came prepared with supplies of water, food and tents. All sorts of people attended but no-one from the Cathedral came out to meet the people. That was the first public relations mistake. Media crews from around the United Kingdom and all over the world were in attendance. Had a frocked representative of the church greeted them, they could have been in charge of the story from the start. Instead the media buzzed around a character dressed up as Jesus with a home made placard which read, “I threw the money lenders out of the temple for a reason.” The Trustees of the Foundation of St Paul’s Cathedral are, for the most part, ex or current money lenders. They have the experience and the knowledge of how to organise large scale publicity campaigns. Yet on that first morning they had no strategy in place. The was the second public relations mistake.
After an hour and a half of circling Paternoster Square and being unable to obtain peaceful access, the Occupationists settled on the land immediately in front of and to the side of St Paul’s Cathedral. The City of London police received reinforcements from the Metropolitan Police, who are more used to dealing with large scale issues like the gathering now occurring. They fell to using their preferred method: kettling. Riot vans were parked around the kerb bumper to bumper. People were prevented from leaving the area. The idea that St Paul’s Cathedral’s staff did not know this was happening is nonsensical, yet still no-one representing the Cathedral made any public appearance. They didn’t even make a statement. That was the third public relations mistake.
The police did allow newcomers to join the people in the kettle. These came in two large waves. There was much shouting of “Let them in! Let them in!” and the police eventually gave way. The police put up an LED sign which informed those of us inside the kettle that we were being contained to prevent a breach of the peace. Then the police breached the peace by charging up to the top of the Cathedral steps. This provocative behaviour resulted in one of them having losing a helmet to a protestor who grabbed it from his head. The police responded with pushing, shoving, punching and kicking. No-one has reported the use of any batons. Why do we pay for them to have truncheons, if they are going to use old style hooligan tactics? The police spent the rest of the night guarding the mighty Cathedral doors. The people were still contained. In fact this containment is what caused the people to settle on the area directly around St Paul’s. They could not leave if they had wanted to. A general assembly of the people gathered there decided to hold that land in occupation, true. However, what else could they have done? At some point in the evening the police provided the people inside the kettle with water and toilets. Clearly we were being asked to bed down for the night. More people put their tents up. Had the Cathedral had any objections, surely by now they would have asked the police to disperse the people rather than sit by silently whilst they were herded into an encampment? This lack of decisive action by the Cathedral was their fourth public relations mistake.
In the morning Canon Dr Giles Fraser arrived on the Cathedral steps and ordered the police away. Humbled by the man in the cloth, they didn’t wait for orders from on high. They moved on. The cold and weary protestors applauded the churchman.
In the days that followed, the Cathedral authorities responded to requests by the Occupationists to enter a dialogue with them. This dialogue proceeded in an orderly manner. However, the Cathedral was more open with certain newspapers than the people it was directly liaising with. It often used to be said that “the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer”. If that is true, the Daily Telegraph is the parish newspaper. The Cathedral drip fed information to the Occupationists whilst maintaining a full feeding tube to the Telegraph. This is not a good way to maintain public relations. The Telegraph is not the only newspaper in the land. The Cathedral failed to recognise that in this day and age, it had to respond fairly between all groups. By failing to do so, it left other media crews searching for their own stories. The picture became confused largely because the Cathedral wasn’t properly managing its own story. That was its fifth public relations mistake.
The London Fire Brigade visited the Occupationists encampment in its first week. The Occupationists listened to the fire brigade’s concerns and reorganised their camp accordingly. Subsequently, the Cathedral unexpectedly withdrew from the dialogue with the Occupationists and closed its doors to the public, citing fire risks, health & safety concerns and their own commercial interests. This muddled collection of decisions and explanations comprised public relations mistakes six – the unilateral closure without warning, seven – claiming to know more about fire risks than the London Fire Brigade, eight – citing health & safety concerns without giving any detail on what they were, despite repeated requests for clarification, nine – citing commercial interests of being of importance having unilaterally closed their own doors and ten – communicating only by an open letter.
With this headlong charge into publicity hell, the Cathedral busted its credibility wide open. Any ordinary reading of this open letter by an Occupationist who had just been through the camp’s reorganisation to comply with the Fire Brigade’s requirements left the distinct impression that the Cathedral had turned against the people. Everyone on the ground knew that any health & safety concerns could be easily dealt with, were they actually explained. The entire encampment had been organised by the people present to allow access to the Cathedral. Tour parties were still continuing. If anything there were more tourists than before because the Occupation was generating new tourists, some of who were visiting the Cathedral. Church of England vicars around the country were outraged and began to contact the Occupationists, proffering support. Almost every noncomformist Christian church in England officially supported the Occupation. Instead of St Paul’s Cathedral looking like the bullwark against oppression, it looked dangerously like the bastion of it. Certainly that was impression created around the world, with Anglicans in particular looking on in dismay at this iconic church closing its door on the poor sleeping rough on its steps.
None of this approach made any sense. People began to question whether the Cathedral was on the side of the poor or the banks the Occupationists were protesting against. The Trustees of the Foundation of St Paul’s were checked out and found to be representative of the wealthy and powerful. Many people encamped on the church steps declared that happenstance had brought them to exactly the right place, declaring that occupying St Paul’s was every bit as valid as occupying the London Stock Exchange. The Cathedral’s mismanagement had darkened the mood but the people coming home from their jobs to their new found home outside the church responded with classic English optimism. The talk of the camp turned to the history of Ludgate Hill. The conversation flowed around the fact that it has been a very ancient place for people to gather. Speculation over its use as a spiritual home, before the Romans conquered it, was rife. No-one had expected the church to throw its doors open and welcome the campaigners in but this hardened approach made enemies amongst a powerful new community.
When the new approach didn’t bear immediate fruit, the Cathedral made a series of emotive statements. There were no more open letters. These communiques were made to the established press. The BBC et al furiously reported that the Cathedral’s various long established events were all going to be cancelled. The list included the Remembrance Sunday, the Lord Mayor’s Show and Christmas. Initially these reports put the Occupationists on the back foot. The Lord Mayor’s Show had take place on the same site every year since 604 AD with one exception at the height of the blitz in 1940. Remembrance Sunday is an obviously important event for the hearts and minds of the nation. Christmas Services in any church still resonates with faith in something meaningful for many people who don’t attend church any more, save for weddings and funerals. However, on reflection many people thought the potential cancellation of the Lord Mayor’s Show a victory for the Occupationists, rather than an insult to the nation. By this time opinion polls were well over 80% in favour of the Occupation. The Lord Mayor is very clearly associated with the rich and powerful. The fact that the only event which stopped the Show previously was Hitler’s bombing campaign appeared to show the strength of the Occupation. Suddenly the Occupation looked like it had historical significance. Day time numbers swelled at the camp. Christmas in the Cathedral is not something enjoyed by the nation’s poor but by their bankers. The church Christmas that people still think of fondly is the humble affair in a lowly place, after the image of Christ being born into homelessness. The threat to cancel Remembrance Sunday outraged people on both sides of the debate. Fuelled by the emotive nature of the threat, a member of the English Defence League has publicly declared that he will murder someone at the Occupation to drive the people away from the steps of St Paul’s. (The police have not arrested him – why not?) This violent threat was entirely predictable after the Cathedral spread misinformation. The fact is that there is nothing to stop Remembrance Sunday, except the Cathedral itself. The media crews they have been speaking with begun to investigate these emotive claims more thoroughly and discovered that they were fiction. Making fictional claims and generating hatred has been the Cathedral’s eleventh public relations mistake.
While all of this was going on, the Cathedral continued to allow private services to occur. A happy couple were married during the Occupation. Some of the wedding guests praised the Occupationists (fourth paragraph at that link). Shutting their doors to the public who can tour the Cathedral for free but still accepting paying guests was the twelfth public relations mistake.
As I write this, the Cathedral has informed its favourite newspapers that its authorities will be meeting on Friday 28th October 2011 to see what can be done about the Occupation. By that time the Occupation will have been encamped on its steps for two whole weeks. This slowness in organising itself is in itself the thirteenth public relations mistake. It should be able to claim that this is its nth meeting. In the meantime the people camped outside its huge doors have held at least 30 general assemblies which have been attended by ordinary people ranging in number between several hundred and several thousand. These people have organised themselves into a functional village, complete with a medical centre, a kitchen serving meals for all for free, a tea room, a cinema, a library, a tech tent, a media centre and a University which sees daily lectures by some of the greatest academics in the land. Yesterday the Occupation began publishing its own newspaper. The fact that the Cathedral cannot organise itself properly whilst several thousand strangers can set up a civil society in the face of adversity and right on its doorstep, speaks the proverbial volumes about who is closer to the people.
The Cathedral is making moves to reopen its doors tomorrow. The Occupation has not gone away. The Cathedral has not clarified any of its complaints, with the result that no changes have been made to the camp. Therefore, there was no reason to close the Cathedral in the first place. Reopening its doors in this manner admits to the closure being nothing to do with the Occupation and everything to do with politics. This political confession is the Cathedral’s fourteenth public relations mistake.
This morning the BBC reports that Canon Dr Giles Fraser, the only churchman in the Cathedral who every seemed to be in charge of events, was expected to resign in a few days. He is thought to object to the removal of the peaceful camp by force. Given the masterful manner in which he handled the potential public relations gift (link is to my video showing moment he ordered the police away from the church steps) that the Occupation presented to the Cathedral on the Sunday morning of 15th October 2011, his departure is the fifteenth public relations mistake by the Cathedral. In fact, he resigned this morning.
Finally, on Saturday 29th October 2011 at 3pm the Occupation has organised a “Sermon on the Steps“. This service will include readings, reflection, prayer and short speeches by representatives of different faiths and those of none at all. The themes are love, peace and unity. It will be the first service at St Paul’s since the Cathedral authorities closed their doors. If they allow this to proceed without being involved in it, that will be their sixteenth public relations mistake. Their non-involvement won’t just be a mistake, it will be a disaster.