The 22 May 2018 marked one year on from the devastating Manchester Arena bombing which killed 22 people and changed countless lives, and the city, forever. Jen Green, director of strategic communications at Manchester City Council, reflects on how Manchester came together to remember those tragic events and honour the city’s powerful community spirit. The Manchester Together memorial programme was awarded a bronze award at the 2018 public service communications excellence awards.
The past 18 months have been among the most challenging times of our careers. From dealing with the horror of the immediate aftermath of the arena terror attack, to navigating the complexities of recovery – something that has only just finished in an official capacity. For all of us involved in public service in Manchester, and indeed for all of us who live in, work in, or love this city, the one year anniversary was an important milestone. We wanted to create something that evoked love, strength and solidarity while remembering all those who lost their lives, as well as those with life changing injuries or traumas. We also wanted to thank our communities and all who had helped us, and honour the powerful sense of togetherness that we can seen across the city in the weeks and months that followed the attack.
We started where we have started all of our post-attack work; with the families of those who lost loved ones. It was essential that any anniversary activities had their support and put their wants and needs at the forefront. As a group, we agreed that we wanted something which emphasised togetherness and community and offered opportunities for people across the city to show their love and support.
As it wouldn’t have been possible to accommodate everything we wanted to deliver into a single event, we decided to create a programme of activities entitled Manchester Together. The programme included an art installation in the city centre in the days leading up to the anniversary, called Trees of Hope. This saw 30 trees line the street from the Cathedral to St Ann’s Square. As bees are the symbol of the city we attached bee hive tags to all of the trees, which people could then write messages of remembrance, love and hope on.
For the actual anniversary we arranged a memorial service in the Cathedral, which was attended by the Prime Minister and the Duke of Cambridge and screened for the public in a number of site across the city. There was also a national minute’s silence.
Later that evening we held a memorial concert in Albert Square entitled Manchester Together- With One Voice. Music is such an integral part of Manchester’s identity and so we wanted to integrate it into the memorial but in a way that enabled people to join together. We decided to invite choirs to participate and held a mass ‘singalong’ where all of those in attendance could sing music by artists from the city and celebrate what it means to be a Mancunian. Due to the popularity of the event we also screened the concert in a number of other outdoor sites across the city to allow as many people as possible to take part.
The council’s communications team played a vital role across all of this activity. From supporting with the logistics of arranging pooled coverage by the BBC, to helping residents understand what was happening and when. We used the full range of our channels to share the plans for the memorial with residents, businesses and visitors so as many people as possible had the chance to participate, and worked closely with our counterparts from other organisations including our health partners, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Greater Manchester Police and Visit Manchester, to reach the widest possible audience. We also made sure that our communications included messages about support services available to people affected by the tragedy and shared details of how people could report hate crimes, as we recognised that the anniversary had the potential to be a trigger for both of these things.
It is difficult to measure the impact of an event like this due to the fairly unique circumstances. However, our trees of hope installation attracted nearly 50,000 messages, suggesting that people had truly engaged with the initiative. We have now collected all of those messages to store in a living archive of the city. More than 20,000 people attended the Together with One Voice concert screenings and the minute’s silence was observed across the country. The events were covered by all major news outlets. Crucially, there was also no spike in incidents of hate crime during this time, suggesting that our messaging and emphasis on unity had been heard.
Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it
Effective relationships and strong collaboration were crucial for the successful delivery of this work. We worked with the families, colleagues across the council, and our partner organisations to make sure that arrangements were coordinated smoothly and reached as many people as possible. Developing several events also allowed residents and visitors to show their support in a number of different ways which helped us to engage even more people than we might ordinarily have done.
Sustaining this work will be a challenge for us as an organisation and a city. The first anniversary is a key milestone, but it’s important that we have plans in place for the years to come and are able to manage expectations about how we would rebuild should the city ever suffer a tragedy of this scale again. It’s something we’re already working to develop strategies for.
Accept the help you are offered. We have been overwhelmed by offers of support from across the city and beyond over the past 18 month and initially we were not in a position to coordinate and accept it all. As time went by we learnt the importance of accepting help to support the resilience of the organisation. I would also advise all communicators to get large team together as early as possible during an emergency and throughout recovery as this stage lasts much longer than many people expect. Finally, it is vital to build relationships with partners and colleagues across the sector during times of calm so you have those relationships in place should the worst happen.
Want to know more
For more information please contact Melanie Barker, communications business partner, at Manchester City Council.