Contentious from the start, this high profile programme had plenty of twists and turns: Starting with an open consultation process that demanded continued transparency to be balanced with the climate of commercial competition for a title: A huge curve ball in the form of the shock result of the EU referendum; Confirmation from DCMS that the UK would still be eligible to bid for the title; The need to bring the city behind the bid but to pace ourselves, celebrating the big milestones and keeping momentum in between; and ending with the announcement that following a breakdown in negotiations regarding Brexit the EU had withdrawn the right for a UK city to host the title of European Capital of Culture 2023!

As stories go this one had more plot twists than an Ian Rankin thriller, making the press and media relations a challenging, shape-shifting task which was to be undertaken with a mix of internal staff teams, agencies, and partners’ communications teams, all keen to support the city whilst promoting their own associations with what was set to be a high profile and prestigious moment in Leeds’ history.

BoxRectPress7_Press_Leeds2023 (1).jpg


Although the city voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bid for the title of European Capital of Culture, this did not mean that everyone was on board, nor did it mean that everyone had the same understanding of what a bid could involve, what its focus should be and who should have the greatest benefit. The consultation had set a tone of transparency and joint ownership of the bid – this belonged to everyone in the city and we would need their help to make it happen. Rightly so, this process had led to a number of critical friends who would continue to publicly question and challenge the process throughout.

Rather than shy away from this and create a series of ‘corporate lines’ the strategy was to always engage in these debates, not to lead them or shut them down but to be honest about where we had the answers, where we were learning as we went, where different perspectives could help to create a stronger bid. Our social media was always open and the team were empowered to engage in conversations maintaining an open and conversational tone without having to attain sign off for each tweet. This built a very engaged online audience who came with us every step of the way.

As the bid progressed more and more partners and stakeholders added their contributions and wanted to add their voice to the bid. We created a series of FAQs and tool kits to help partners stay on message and we worked very closely with local media outlets to develop media and content partnerships that would give the bid and its partners a visible platform and help to pace the energy of the project, focusing heavily on key milestones such as decisions from DCMS and deadlines for submitting the bid and using the quieter periods where the bid was being developed to focus on the people, businesses and organisations making it happen.

To fill less busy times we created a series of major events or moments to help build excitement, reach audiences that either weren’t aware of the bid or knew but were ambivalent, and create content for social media channels. We used the marker of 100 days to go to launch the #MakeLeeds2023 campaign which invited members of the public to take part in an aerial photograph, and launched weeks of case studies profiling the people behind the cultures of the city who made Leeds worthy of the 2023 title every day. The case studies were used across local media, digital and social communications. Another major milestone was the submission of the first stage bid for which we closed a number of streets in the cultural area of the city and created the Big Send Off street party inviting community groups to bring their own cultures and share the stage with our internationally renowned arts organisations.

The bid process is lengthy and in 2014 when the consultation was undertaken we could not have foreseen that there would be a referendum on EU membership, much less what the outcome of that referendum would be. From June 2016 there was uncertainty surrounding the bid and the team had continued discussions with both DCMS and EU officials to seek assurances. While the signs were positive with deadlines set and judging panels appointed, on the 23rd November 2017 the devastating news that UK cities would not be eligible for the title broke via a letter leaked to the website Politico.

Throughout the initial 48 hours of crisis communications we briefed partners and stakeholders with holding narratives, released immediate press statements reiterating the city’s commitment to leading with culture and responded to enquiries from local, national and international press alongside social media comment and enquiries from the very actively engaged audiences and critical friends we had nurtured relationships with over the course of the last four years.

Following the initial fall-out from the shock announcement, Leeds chose to move ahead with its plans and will create a year-long cultural festival in 2023 celebrating the cultures across the whole city and inviting the international artistic community to explore a new post-Brexit relationship with cities across the UK. We created an open public meeting which was attended by more than 700 residents, businesses and artists from across the city and worked with our media partners and social advocates to send a defiant message that the show will go on!

Over the course of the four year bidding period we generated coverage in all forms of local press including Yorkshire Evening Post, Yorkshire Post, BBC Leeds, ITV Calendar, Look North and online news site alongside high profile national coverage in Observer, Guardian, BBC, Arts Professional, Sunday Times, The Times, Telegraph, and Daily Mail.

LEEDS 2023
Main image: #MakeLeeds2023 100 days to go campaign
Left image: Announcing new sponsors L-R Dr. Adam Beaumont, CEO aql; Sharon Watson, Chair Leeds 2023 Independent Steering Group; Prew Lumley, Real Estate Partner Squire Patton Boggs; John Alderton Managing Partner Squire Patton Boggs.
Right image: Cllr Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council addresses the audience at the Leeds 2023 Launch event