Was £3K Laurel and Hardy public relations promotion a '˜fine mess'?

Blackpool Council used a private public relations firm, at a cost of £3,180, to promote the purchase of a comedian's hat for the resort's new entertainment museum.

Sunday, 6th May 2018, 12:05 pm
Updated Monday, 7th May 2018, 9:46 am
Stan Laurel

Leader Simon Blackburn said that, because funding was won shortly after for the Amuseum, staff there believed the cash used to promote its buying of Stan Laurel’s iconic bowler hat was ‘well spent’, despite the authority having its own in-house PR team.

But his opposite number, Tony Williams, criticised the spend, saying: “It was a total waste of money, especially when we have our own PR at the council, who do an excellent job. It’s just another example of the council wasting money.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund, which gave a grant of £400,000 up front with the prospect of a further £4m, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which also pledged £4m, told The Gazette in separate statements they awarded the cash on the merits of the bids.

Karry Vasilou from Blackpool Council's cultral services team, with a bowler hat that belonged to comedy hero Stan Laurel (Picture: Lorne Campbell/Guzelian)

Stories about the museum’s acquisition, which will form part of resort musician Cyril Critchlow’s collection when it opens in 2020, first appeared in The Guardian and Daily Telegraph on Monday, March 19, according to a tweet from its official account. @BlackpoolMuseum said: “We’re in the @guardian and @dailytelegraph this morning with some very exciting news! We have acquired a rare, Stan Laurel bowler hat which was signed & given to local magician Cyril Critchlow in 1947. We are bowled over!”

Accompanying pictures showed the story was given one sentence and a large image in The Guardian, and three sentences and two pictures in the Daily Telegraph.

Blackpool Council paid a four-figure sum for the hat.

Coun Williams, the leader of the opposition at the town hall, asked why the council had used an outside firm at a council meeting on Wednesday, March 21, which Coun Blackburn did not attend.

However, in a formal response to Coun Williams, Coun Blackburn (inset) said: “As you would expect, elected members do not involve themselves in day-to-day procurement decisions. However, I am informed that the Museum Project article was a one-off piece of work costing £3,180 (inclusive of VAT) and SKV were used because they wished to target particular quality daily newspapers in the hope that this may influence the two funding bids that were being decided.

“As both bids were successful, the Museum Team believes that this was money well spent.”

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport spokesman said: “All applications for the Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund were assessed against a published set of criteria and decisions were made on the merits of each bid.”

A spokeswoman for the Heritage Lottery Fund added: “All applications are assessed on heritage merit and against outcomes for people, heritage, and communities.”

Despite repeated requests, nobody at Blackpool Council was available to comment.

Laurel, one half of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy, gave the hat to Cyril after playing at the Palace Theatre in June 1947, signing the lining: “Hello Cyril, Stan Laurel.” When Cyril died a decade ago, his collection was donated to the town, but his hat had already been sold to a private collector.