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Berlin 24/7: Construction is silver, speech is gold

Since construction projects are a disaster in Berlin, managers should at least apply readily available strategies to improve their image, says DW’s Gero Schliess.An opera house without an opera? That would be like a chancellery without a chancellor. Yet that appears to be a probable scenario in Berlin – for the opera, I mean.

The renovation works on the Berlin State Opera building have been underway since 2009. The conductor of the opera, Daniel Barenboim, announced its opening last year – and the year before that too, always on October 3. Each time in vain.

Here’s another never-ending construction site, in typical Berlin style.

Berlin’s eternal building works

It should finally open this October 3 – it has to! Yet the long-awaited opening season will not include the large opera production that was also announced by Barenboim. It suddenly became clear that stage requirements for this show are very complex, and that more time to rehearse would be needed.

Therefore, the opera house will open without its opera. It still remains to be seen how minimalistic the opening concerts will be: duet, quartet, nonet – or can something larger be expected?

While that construction project was awfully directed, communications surrounding it were even worse.

The Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment should have actually known how to deal with a case like this, since it has come up with a clever-sounding document, called “Berlin’s recommended action plan for construction site communication.”

OK, it could have been directly called “crisis communication,” as so many major construction sites are poorly managed in the city – including the international airport BER, the Pergamon Museum, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) new headquarters and now the Berlin State Opera, known in German as the Staatsoper unter den Linden.

Roadmap for improved communication

The recommended action plan could have served as a life-saver for all authorities who felt they were about to drown in construction site waters, especially for those in charge of communicating bad news about overdrawn budgets and missed deadlines.

“Shocking reports are definitely to be avoided,” says the Senate paper. Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, should have learned this lesson long ago.

Altogether, the recommendations in the action plan read like a litany of missed opportunities. “Remain realistic and do no create false expectations,” is one example.

That worked out well with the BER airport. Its opening had to be postponed four times already. From October 2011 to June 2012, then it was pushed to the beginning of 2013. After that, the airport company avoided setting new dates. It was supposed to open in fall 2016, then at the beginning of 2017. Odds are now that it will rather happen in 2018.

Building projects presented in a positive light

Another recommendation in the action plan is to “communicate positive goals.” Perhaps, for example: We should be happy that the skies above BER are airplane-free, because in the meantime, the popular Tegel airport can further be used, instead of being mothballed as initially planned.

The ongoing extension of the Pergamon Museum won’t be complete until 2023. Along the way, the project’s budget and its construction period have both doubled. These changes of plan could be positively communicated by integrating references to the museum’s antique collection: You could simply state that Ancient Greeks wouldn’t have built it more quickly either. No one knows, however, if the construction of the monumental Pergamon Altar during the second century BC was also affected by delays…

The BND headquarters were initially planned for 2013 – and that “reasonably” turned into 2017. The proposed construction costs of 730 million euros have since surpassed the billion mark. My communication tip in this case goes to the German Chancellor, who could gain political capital in her struggles with Donald Trump. Since the US president wants Germany to increase its military spending, she could claim that those millions were invested to supplement cyberwar technologies. Seriously, the Federal Intelligence Service building project is more terrifying to tax payers than foreign secret services.

The psychological support provided by the action plan should not be underestimated. Like high priests, the bureaucrats who devised it grant clemency to their hunted and mocked construction site managers by promising, “Together we can manage to present a construction site as a necessary yet manageable challenge.”


Topics: Berlin 24/7

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