Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Getting the message across

The City Centre Retail Partnership Board meeting today spent some time reflecting on how its role might develop in the light of the building redevelopment now in full swing - the topping out ceremony for the John Lewis department store is scheduled for the end of this month. It is due to open a few months ahead of the main shopping centre, and the possibility of a staged launch gives some cause for concern for all concerned with promotion and public relations. There is a strong determination to get it right and make the most of the opportunity to improve Cardiff's retail scene beyond recognition, despite the current preoccupation with recession, adding to worries about static or falling sales.

There are also concerns about there being enough suitable people to employ when there's a huge new department store and a hundred ordinary stores all bidding for the best people to be their public face. Lots of questions, not many answers. We also talked about the Countdown 2009 progress chasing exercise, and concern was expressed that two of the most important focus groups hadn't yet met - transport and communications.

The Retail Partnership serves in an excellent way to promote what goes on in the city, and the information sharing on a whole plethora of subjects is always up to date and useful. It has certainly transofrmed our life at St John's, knowing what goes on sufficiently in advance to be able to plan to do something about it if it concerns us. Countdown managers would do well to make better use of the expertise already available through the Partnership, as their own internal and external communications processes don't always work effectively for the better.

The developers work very hard now at publicising what's happening behind the hoardings and what's planned for the future. It's effective and the colourful banners cheer up the centre area. Even so, there's been one amusing anomaly.

Half of St John Street has been dug up and sections of the new granite paving laid behind a cordon of Heras fences. There are two separate fenced off sections with a passage between them. I couldn't help noticing last week that one section set nearly six inches higher than the other, creating the possibility of quite a steep gradient from one section to the other across the width of the path between them. Why, I asked one of the project managers. "Oh, the northernmost section is only a test bed. It'll be torn up again soon and re-laid at the lower level." Really? Why not tell the public? I asked. "It's on the to-do list", was the answer.

Walking back from the retail partnership meeting, I observed that in the northernmost section a wooden notice board with a glazed from had been erected. In it was a site map on which was stencilled something like 'Trial paving laid, to be taken up and replaced'. Sort of informative, but not easy to read. Moreover, the map was unintelligible - well it might have been correct for an engineer looking at it, but for Joe Public, looking through the fence, the map was upside down and difficult to identify with the street area it represented.

Now that's the kind of communication we suffer from. A bit like that US/European space project which died embarrassingly because the Yanks did their sums in feet and inches and the Europeans did their metrically, so that when put together in the satellite launch, it led to their creation going way off course. And this from some of the most highly intelligent people on the planet. In exercises of collaboration between groups with different interests and competences, checking assumptions and objectives is one of the hardest tasks to keep on doing. No wonder communication can be so hard to achieve.

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