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Hard pressed

Your career Dealing with the media

What do you do when things go publicly wrong with your project?

Dave Parker talks to the press officer who had to deal with the wobbly bridge disaster.

Saturday 10 June 2000 was the day everything changed for Ove Arup press officer Harriett Ryan. London's Millennium Bridge made headlines around the world - for all the wrong reasons. Suddenly the three strong team she heads was struggling to cope with a torrent of phone calls, request for interviews - and demands for immediate explanations for the infamous wobble which had led to the bridge's closure after only three days.

As press officer for a consulting engineer, Ryan was more used to having a high profile in the trade press. Her job was to build good long term relationships with leading specialist titles and journalists and garner as much positive publicity as possible for the 10,000 or so projects that Arup's 6,000 staff worldwide are engaged on at any one time. The wider media was a different matter, she says.

'Most of the broadsheets have architectural correspondents, none have engineering correspondents, ' she points out. 'We sometimes got a mention if the engineering was particularly innovative, but generally all the interest focused on the architect.'

Indeed, virtually all the preopening publicity for London's Millennium Bridge was centred around architect Sir Norman Foster and sculptor Sir Antony Caro. Then, on opening day, in the full glare of the media spotlight, the thousands of pedestrians crowding on to the bridge induced it to sway rhythmically from side to side.

Nobody was hurt, there was no danger of collapse, but the image of the wobbly bridge was born. Thrust into the dock, Arup had no answers to the questions that came flooding in from around the world.

Ryan's professional experience made sure that Arup did not make the biggest mistake possible - to retreat behind a blunt 'no comment'. 'That's always taken as confirmation you have something to hide, ' she says. 'You must respond, however bad the news and however little you know immediately it breaks.

'Gather information, get an accurate picture of events and put out a statement as fast as possible. If you won't know what happened for some time, explain why. And if your company is obviously responsible, accept it.'

June 2000, however, tested this methodology to its limits - and beyond. Part of the problem was the technical illiteracy of the non-specialist media, few of whose representatives had more than a hazy understanding of how a suspension bridge actually worked. Finding a common language took some time. So did coming to terms with the sort of questions which were being asked.

'We were still thinking like engineers and responding like engineers, ' says Ryan. 'This was fine for the trade press, but the wider media had a different agenda.

'TV companies wanted sound bites, national newspapers were looking for strong, simple angles - who's to blame, who's going to pay. And the whole emphasis was negative.'

The stakes were high. Arup's reputation for engineering excellence was on the line.

Decades of achievement, success with landmark projects from the Sydney Opera House onward, had built an image - within the construction industry at least - of an engineering consultancy that could be trusted with the most demanding and innovative designs. All this could be lost if the wobbly bridge designer tag became an albatross hanging permanently around Arup's neck.

Ryan's and Arup's problem was that the unrecorded phenomena that had caused the wobble - subsequently dubbed synchronous lateral excitation - was hard to clarify and even harder to explain to a non-technical audience. At the first press conference Arup held, once it began to understand the nature of the problem, non-technical journalists did their best to trap senior Arup staff into blaming it all on 'the wrong type of walking'.

Luckily, media training is standard for all senior Arup personnel, and this particular pitfall was spotted in plenty of time.

But time itself became the press office's biggest burden. As the months dragged on and the bridge remained very obviously closed, the media could never leave the story alone. NCE and London's Evening Standard were perhaps the most persistent harriers of Ryan during this period - Ryan herself is diplomatic on the subject - but NCE 's revelation of the details of the proposed cure for the wobble in advance of the planned media announcement in November 2000 must have been more than a little irritating.

Ryan says only: 'The trade press in particular is always fighting for exclusives, and we couldn't maintain good long term relationships with all of them if we were seen to play favourites. In the event NCE got the story from the local planning department, not from us.'

During this very trying period for the practice, the importance for company-wide morale of good internal communications became very apparent. 'We did our best to keep everybody up to date with what was happening, and made it clear, both internally and externally, that we never had any doubts that we would find a solution and the bridge would reopen, ' Ryan affirms.

'The most difficult part was learning how to explain the reasons for our confidence and what our research was showing to a non-technical audience.'

History will record that Arup's confidence was well-founded.

The Millennium Bridge reopened, and is now a major crossing of the Thames for Londoners and tourists alike. Two concluding events sealed its rehabilitation in the eyes of the media.

In January this year, some 2,000 volunteers carried out the final tests of the anti-wobble retrofit. Rather than shun the inevitable media interest, Arup decided to turn the tests into a cross between a family picnic and a public relations event, confident that the success of the tests would go a long way to banishing the wobbly bridge stain from its escutcheon.

It worked. A few weeks later the final chapter in the saga concluded with the premiere of a specially commissioned orchestral work at the Festival Hall.

This finale, says Ryan, was a sign of Arup's pride in the bridge - and its staff.

Ryan herself, though obviously 'glad it's fixed, glad it's open', also confesses to having experienced 'tremendous highs' during the 18 month saga.

She adds: 'PR is like engineering and other professions. Training can only get you so far. There was no textbook response to the Millennium Bridge problem, we had to learn the hard way, and finally we were able to manage the publicity.'

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