When Eurovision came to Liverpool
When Liverpool won the bid to host the 67th Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Ukraine, it could not have predicted the scale of the challenge
When Liverpool decided to submit a bid for the opportunity to host this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, city communications director Camilla Mankabady was clear on one point. If Liverpool proved successful, it would not be the city’s event. It would be Ukraine’s event. The country would be at the centre of everything Liverpool did.
After the Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2022 with the song Stefania, ‘people really wanted [this year’s] event to take place in Ukraine’, Mankabady explains, but as the war with Russia continued, it became clear that this would not be possible.
Like many other cities, Liverpool had already started considering the possibility that the event would go to the runner up – United Kingdom, courtesy of Sam Ryder’s Space Man – and Mankabady and her team had started fielding press calls on whether the city would get involved.
On 25 July 2022, ten weeks after the contest aired, the BBC was announced as broadcaster for the 67th Eurovision Song Contest and interested cities and towns invited to submit bids. Liverpool’s bid was produced by its Culture Directorate, run by Claire McColgan CBE, who was instrumental in the city’s selection as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Communications were involved from the start, along with many other council departments.
‘Claire’s credentials are off the scale, and her team worked really hard on a brilliant bid. But we didn’t know if we were front runner, somewhere in the middle or the bottom of the pile,’ adds Mankabady. Twenty expressions of interest were whittled down to a long list of seven in August, who were then given a month to flesh out their bids for evaluation.
It got down to a shortlist of two: Liverpool and Glasgow. ‘National broadcasters and lots of other media, wanted to pit Glasgow against Liverpool, but that wasn’t the approach I took,’ she explains. ‘My approach was that any city that won the bid would do so on behalf of Ukraine, and indeed the UK. We didn’t go down the path of We’re better than Glasgow. Our campaign, working closely with the culture team, was about openness, equality and equity.’
She adds: ‘But in the final week [before the winner was announced], we really started to ramp up our communications. We brought together a lot of stakeholders to explain why we thought it would be in Liverpool’s interest to get it.’ The City of Odessa, with whom Liverpool is twinned, sent videos in support of the move.
The decision was announced by Graham Norton on the One Show. The BBC had sent a reporter to Glasgow and another to the British Music Experience in Liverpool, located at Cunard House, which is also home to the council. ‘The room went crazy. Everybody was so excited, and then it didn’t stop,’ she says. Within ten minutes, the communications team had received hundreds of emails from people either wanting to work on Eurovision or wanting interviews.
A media briefing was held the next day at the M&S Bank Arena, where the contest was going to be held. ‘We knew that the press would want to be in that space. We had all the big broadcasters and publications and all the key stakeholders there. Obviously, it was an empty space, but we said In a few months, this is really going to come alive. And I think that worked really well,’ explains Mankabady, who adds that her team spent the following week fielding calls and requests from all over the world.
Within ten minutes, the communications team had received hundreds of emails from people either wanting to work on Eurovision or wanting interviews
The Liverpool City Council communications team comprises 12 people, including four people who deal with the press aided by Mankabady. In the fortnight before the contest, and during the event, they recruited a freelancer who works in the cultural sector as an extra pair of hands, but there was no other additional resource. ‘That’s a really tiny team when you’re dealing with a really big project, and the rest of the council business was still going on. We had elections around the same time as the Eurovision, the King’s Coronation the week before, and all kinds of council activities,’ she explains. ‘I’m not going to lie; we were absolutely run ragged, but it was a joyous project to work on. It was complex, but there was a real positivity about it.’
There were just eight months from the announcement that Liverpool had won the bid to the Eurovision Song Contest taking place, so inevitably the pace was not constant throughout.
The team started with a blank sheet of paper, and plotted comms activities around significant events, such as when a team, which included the mayor, his adviser and communications director, arrived from Turin, the previous year’s hosts, to handover the ceremonial keys.
‘We had activity in the run up to that, and post the handover,’ she explains.
Liverpool’s winning bid also included plans for a festival, comprising an educational and communities programme to ensure that everybody within the region felt part of the event, while a EuroFestival would see 24 commissions, many joint productions with Ukrainian organisations, take over the city for a fortnight.
‘There were quite a few moments with the festival story that could get lots of attention. We had a brilliant afternoon event when we trailed what the commissions would be. The programme had been brought together by the culture team and by Ukrainian representatives supporting us, but clearly the comms around it was important.
‘We arranged the event so that it was doable for people travelling up from London, where most of the main broadcasters and media are based. And we arranged travel, making sure it wasn’t a day of a train strike, so that they were with us by lunchtime,’ says Mankabady.
‘They had a glorious two hours. One installation was the English National Opera singing Eurovision songs. We had Ukrainian artists discussing what their installations would be. Some people did demonstrations, some danced, some sang. We played the most extraordinary videos.’ At these moments of high activity, the entire team would pivot to work on the project.
But it was also important to make Liverpool’s residents feel part of the event. Supported by the Department of Culture and other regional partners, EuroGrants of up to £2,000 were made available to community organisations, groups and schools to celebrate Eurovision with events focused on local culture, memories or heritage. ‘We wanted to get our residents involved. So, we said Give us your ideas, and if your idea fits with what we’re trying to do, then we’ll give you a grant to develop it.’
The initiative generated many media hooks, from the first announcement that the grants were open to applications, to the number submitted, the shortlist and the successful grantees.
‘And then, of course, as the projects came to life, we could follow their progress. The media wanted Eurovision stories every day, so this great material. Our local radio station Radio Merseyside set up a podcast and wanted information as fast as we could give it to them. The BBC had a Eurovision correspondent in place in the months around the event because they knew that whenever they had a Eurovision story, they got really great numbers. So, every day, we were contacting the press or they were contacting us looking for updates.’
The team also worked closely with their Ukrainian counterparts and Liverpool’s Culture Team developed many plans in consultation with the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian ambassador and other cultural representatives. Mankabady adds that there were regular meetings to ensure that their Ukrainian colleagues were happy with the ideas and their execution.
At these moments of high activity, the entire team would pivot to work on the project
‘We got to know the Ukrainian ambassador and his wife very well because they were coming up to the city for key moments, and they said coming to Liverpool was like coming home. That was fantastic because that is what we wanted. A lot of events that ran in the two weeks around Eurovision involved Ukrainian singers and artists on our stages. Not only were people seeing Ukrainian art or thinking about Ukrainian photography, but they were also hearing Ukrainian music. The Kalush Orchestra opened our music festival.’
The team also benefited from the advice of a Ukrainian refugee, Veronika Yasynska, living with a Liverpudlian couple, who had been a cultural spokesman in her homeland. ‘She got out when the bombs were raining down on her apartment and ended up in Liverpool. She would visit Central Library, spending time there, and came up with an idea to twin the library with one in Ukraine, because our libraries are very different. She approached us about our idea, and ended up working as part of the culture team, as part of the festival, advising on Ukrainian stalls, books and food,’ adds Mankabady.
The formal twinning of Liverpool’s Central Library and Odessa Regional Scientific Library took place in April, in an historic ceremony attended by His Royal Highness King Charles, the then Queen Consort and the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska. It marked the official start of the build up to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Recognising that Eurovision fans follow their long-established channels and fan forums, the communications team opted not to launch bespoke Eurovision channels, instead relying on existing platforms. As the first local authority on TikTok, with a healthy 23,000 plus followers, it created much content to share on that platform.
‘Liverpool has a very young population, and we knew during Covid that if we wanted young Covid messaging to land, it had to be on TikTok. We also have a healthy following on Instagram, and those were the two platforms that we worked hard on. Twitter less so,’ she explains. ‘When we talked about some of the more corporate initiatives, and how we were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ukrainian nation, that did work on LinkedIn. But the vibrancy and wanting to get local residents involved, then our heartland was TikTok and Instagram.’
The team also did a lot of social media listening. ‘We wanted to know what people were saying, Was it good? Was it bad? What were their thoughts at a particular moment? That was a really great barometer for us,’ she adds. Many residents were concerned that the council was spending money on Eurovision at the expense of other services, and the team was able to spot when this issue, and others, were brewing up and conduct myth busting exercises.
Liverpool has a very young population, and we knew during Covid that if we wanted young Covid messaging to land, it had to be on TikTok
‘We needed to make it really clear that we were not wasting taxpayers’ money. We were proud that we put £2 million in [that had already been earmarked for cultural activities], but we knew we were going to get that ten-fold back – which is what has happened. There was also a lot of noise around hotel prices. And yes, there were some Airbnb owners who had put up their prices but actually a lot of hotel owners and managers had held back rooms at our behest. We wanted those rooms to get released as and when people got their tickets. So, there were moments when we had to say Don’t be overly concerned about accommodation, there will be places for you. Don’t panic,’ she explains.
‘Those were the only issues we felt we had to get involved with, the rest of it was actually feeling the love. But we were also conscious that we didn’t want to take sides. We are neutral. We are officers who are apolitical. We were careful not to step into the space about the war. But when we saw one of our videos or some of our copy hijacked, by both sides, we felt we couldn’t be a facilitator to that, so we would put up blocks and checks and balances around what we were doing.’
Equally, though, there were sensitivities around terminology. Initially, the message from Ukraine was that the Eurovision Song Contest should not be described as a party. But as the teams worked closely together, and the months went by, the stance softened. ‘As we got closer to the televised shows, the view was very much Let us all enjoy this: we are not going to be beaten. We are going to stand together. All of that sensitivity would not usually be there, but with an event like this, we had to think through the political ramifications.’
Representing a country engaged in a war also brings a unique perspective. While a major concern was cyber resilience, and how to get the messages out to journalists in that event, there were also plans in case they were unable to use the venue. How would they go ahead? (Ten minutes before the Ukrainian entry Tvorchi performed on the night, their home city of Ternopil was bombed.)
We are officers who are apolitical. We were careful not to step into the space about the war
The real challenge, however, was ‘feeding the beast’. She adds: ‘If you’ve got a captive audience, an audience that runs into millions around the world, [there is a realisation] that every new element is a great piece of information that they want.’
Some of this ‘feed’ came from local initiatives. Many schools across the region embraced the event as a chance to teach their pupils Ukrainian and Eurovision songs or to create art projects. Community groups got involved while a special programme brought Eurovision to the region’s care homes, where artists would sing all the old hits, bringing back memories of when the residents watched the contest. And it didn’t stop with the final.
Three weeks after the contest, Liverpool’s comms team was uploading videos of local school children performing a tap dance to Ukrainian folk music with plans to share excerpts from an upcoming concert of Ukrainian music. And next month, Liverpool City Region Pride Foundation will hold its Pride march jointly with KyivPride, because it is too risky for marches to take place in Ukraine.
As Mankabady points out: ‘We’re still the host city until Sweden gets handover keys.’ Each key is designed by the previous host nation, and it is expected that Liverpool and Ukraine will work together to produce the 2024 handover key. ‘For superfans, that is a really big moment. [When Turin handed over the keys], the team helped us through the early planning meetings. We all start with a blank sheet of paper. We want to be as supportive to the Swedish city that takes on the mantle.’
One issue that Turin did not face, however, was a train strike. ‘Many of us was concerned that that was a possibility. There were lots of conversations with the Department of Transport and other organisations. We were worried that a strike would have a hugely negative impact.’ In the event, railway unions organised strikes to coincide with the Eurovision finals. ‘We coped well. We put a lot of mitigation in place, but that was something we could have done without.’
The volume of stakeholders produced another challenge for the communications team, with many discussions around marketing, branding or even the positioning of logos. ‘There was a lot of co-creation on press releases, especially when funding came from two or three partners and we really wanted to make it clear that it was a collective endeavour,’ she adds. ‘There was nothing left-field, but those are the things that can hold you up.’
We’re still the host city until Sweden gets handover keys
All those months ago when Mankabady first started plotting her communications strategy, she concedes that she could not have predicted the scale of the media operations. More than 1,000 traditional media and 1,000 accredited influencers arrived for Eurovision ‘who all wanted to be fed with information, with details, so part of our work was about the city. We established a Liverpool stand in the arena for visiting journalists and influencers to ask us information: Where do we go for dinner? Where’s a good restaurant we could film? We realised local knowledge was a very big part of our role, so we worked closely with Visit Britain who came and helped us on that.’
The breadth of requests also came as a shock. From the traditional broadsheets to extraordinarily detailed fan-based knowledge queries to requests for information about Liverpool as a mini-break destination. The team even found themselves acting as tour guides for foreign media at weekends. ‘It was that scale of ambition, where we found ourselves working around the clock to facilitate, we wanted everybody to feel that they got what they wanted,’ she adds.
Working with the European Broadcasting Union and the BBC, they co-produced frequently asked questions. The EBU answered Eurovision related questions, the BBC questions about timings and running order, and Liverpool local queries. ‘It worked but there were lots of meetings and lots of email trails [sorting out who was responsible for which query],’ she explains.
The BBC took ‘control’ of the arena seven weeks before the event, which meant it controlled media access, while the council was responsible for accrediting journalists to visit its building and the festival site. ‘Security was watertight. Every day, journalists needed new accreditation. It was a very time-consuming process. But you know what it’s like, on the last few days, we suddenly got a rush and were trying to turn accreditation around very quickly.’
But the work has brought its own rewards. Initially, the council thought that its £2 million investment, supplemented by an additional £2 million from the Metro Mayor’s team and undisclosed sums from the BBC and DCMS, would generate around £20 million for the city. Today, they predict the figure could exceed £40 million.
The two-week festival brought in an extra 500,000 visitors to Liverpool, against expectations of 100,000, while a EuroVision village on Pier Head welcomed 250,000 visitors. But the city is also expecting many of these visitors to return – a phenomenon experienced by Turin – to explore sights they missed during their Eurovision trip.
But it is also about creating a legacy. ‘This wasn’t just about the bandwagon coming to town and leaving. It was a really big moment in our city’s history and we want to keep using that moment to build further links, whether that’s through skills, investment, knowledge sharing or even the Liverpool Philharmonic exploring links with Ukrainian orchestras,’ says Mankabady. ‘Every layer of the city is now thinking How do we keep this going?’