Toppling Colston’s statue could be an iconic moment for Bristol

This article was published in PR Week on 9 June. Thanks to them for giving me the opportunity to provide some thoughts from the perspective of a Bristol-based business.

Recent anti-racism protests across the world illustrate that, while language matters, action changes things.

Sunday’s dramatic events in Bristol, where debates about 17th century slave trader and former MP Edward Colston have simmered for many years, are a case in point.

Discussions about how a man with shared responsibility for transporting tens of thousands of Africans to British colonies is reflected in Bristol’s history were swept aside by protesters. It highlighted a sense that the time for talking (and getting nowhere) is over. In reality, as the debate goes global, the local conversation may be about to get going again.

Local events go global

Local leaders must try to strike a balance when feelings in their areas run high, and people from Ice Cube to Keir Starmer are expressing views on what’s happening. It’s unwise to criticise ‘thuggery’, as Home Secretary Priti Patel did, if you represent a city where views on such issues are not clear cut.

While a police investigation into the statue’s toppling will follow, there’s cause to be encouraged by the local response which contrasted strongly with those from national politicians.

Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees, Europe’s first directly elected black mayor, didn’t resort to condemning protestors. In thoughtful interviews yesterday, he said he felt the statue was an ‘affront’ to him, and felt no sense of loss for its removal. Many more people who followed this story will understand why after the weekend’s events.

The Bristol Post ran a comment from editor Mike Norton, himself a Bristolian, which stated that years of talking without acting had led the city to this point. BBC radio, TV and city-based organisation Bristol 24/7 provided excellent reporting and analysis, which demonstrated the importance of local news as a reliable and trusted source of information at a time when its future is uncertain. 

Defining the new reality

Coming at a time when we’re all talking about the ‘new normal’, these events present a challenge to local leaders to bring as many people in their areas as possible with them on the journey to that fabled destination.

A conversation about what it should look like – in terms of how we live, work, learn, travel and buy stuff – would be a good place to start. It’s a conversation that’s best held by organisations who understand those places and are working closely with stakeholders to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

This is long-term stuff that’s often overlooked in the campaigning mindset many of us have.

It’s about creating spaces for conversations and avenues for feedback, online and offline.

It’s about acknowledging that reality is messy, and that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable about the past whilst also feeling sadness at what’s happening today.

It’s about moving beyond a hashtag and trying to do better.

What happened in Bristol could be an iconic moment for the city. After its measured response, we can at least hope that it represents a positive step forward.

Those responsible for managing local responses to global events should take note.

Photo by Keir Gravil