Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Authenticity Means Walking the Four-Way Walk

The irony of a huge message greeting travelers as they approach Downtown Durham, NC has been on my mind since Friday.  Shown in the image in this blog, it was erected by the District level of Rotary International over the objections of a great number of Durham Rotarians.

Even if Rotarians here, including many in leadership positions, hadn’t vociferously objected when the plan for the billboards was first floated, District 7710, an umbrella serving 44 autonomous clubs in the north-east-central piedmont region of North Carolina, should have known better than to use billboards to carry its message, especially in Durham.Rotary Billboard on Approach to Downtown Durham

In their just-published book entitled Can’t Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results, Bob Garfield and Doug Levy make an observation of which Rotary should take note:

“Now marketers can and must define their brands not by ads…but by their core purpose.”

In his related editorial in USA Today yesterday, Garfield, who is also co-host of NPR’s On The Media and a veteran journalist who covers marketing in such publications as Advertising Age, notes that “the public now evaluates brands more on how they conduct themselves in the world than on the intrinsic qualities of the goods and services themselves.”

The Rotary billboard message’s intent was to stimulate membership interest but to me, and I believe to the younger audiences to which it is trying to appeal, the organization’s use of that medium is not only guaranteed a high turn-off to turn-on ratio but it violates three elements of The Four-Way Test of core values to which Rotarians recommit during weekly meetings:

Is it FAIR to All Concerned?

No!  It is an insult to Durham, which banned outdoor billboards in 1984.  When the courts approved their removal, lobbyists for the outboard billboard industry aided by copious amounts of campaign donations persuaded the NC General Assembly to make that impossible.

So Durham is forced to wait for the remaining 89 out of 200 to fall down over time or be removed when roads are widened.


No!  Not only is it offensive to Durham residents, it runs in the face of the 8 out of 10 North Carolinians who view billboards as detracting from the appearance of communities.

Billboards are viewed by many as “desecration marketing” and unethical because they not only create blight but because their owners destroy roadside trees, generating air and water pollution.

Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

No!  Only .2 percent of Americans find billboards useful during the course of a year.  Even utilization by small businesses has fallen to less than 3% because thoughtful marketers realize that not only will a billboard message turn off more than 8 consumers to every 1 for which it may appeal but the stigma accrues to the brand (in this case Rotary) and not to the billboard company.

Conservative guru William F. Buckley wrote that “billboards are acts of aggression, against which the public is entitled, as a matter of privacy, to be protected…”

Advertising legend Howard Gossage decried the existence and use of outdoor billboards noting that - “Outdoor advertising is peddling a commodity it does not own and without the owner’s permission: your field of vision.”

It is possible that Rotary wasn’t aware of where Fairway, the out-of-state owner of the billboard in question, would place its message.  It should have.  It should also have been wary of the complimentary or reduced cost space the outdoor billboard industry provides to non-profits as a means to resurrect what is left of it image and create the misimpression of disloyalty to community values.

Maybe Rotary felt enabled and Fairway emboldened to disrespect Durham, because the community’s downtown advocacy organization, though taxpayer-funded and fully-aware of local sentiment, has for years been too lazy to change out a depiction of an outdoor billboard as art work on its homepage long after being reminded of Durham values.

When serving as president of the largest and oldest of Durham’s five rotary clubs nearly a decade ago, I learned the hard way when consulting Rotary officials up line on controversial matters, that some were fearful of taking a stand, even when to do so meant being consistent to the organization’s core values.

Rotary wasn’t that way back when 16 Durham business leaders, including one in public office met on November 9, 1915 to organize the first Rotary Club here, just short of six years after the now 1.2 million strong worldwide organization was founded.

Beginning just before 1900, Durham like many places across the nation was caught up in what is now referred to as The Progressive EraThis was an era of reform that spawned a surge of community pride and improvement initiatives across the nation including a concern for beautification and appearance.

The era spawned many community initiatives such as arts councils, city beautification and planning, community-destination marketing (convention and visitor bureaus,) forestry organizations and concern for urban forests, business advocacy organizations such as chambers of commerce and a push toward professional management for cities and counties.

Durham’s first Rotary Club was caught up almost immediately in a struggle between members focused on embedding ethics and ideals in its members and some who were more interested in projects.

For many clubs today, projects are almost entirely the focus which leaves many members and club leaders vulnerable to making mistakes that are contrary to the organization’s core values.  This includes using outdoor billboards.

However, even those who were project-driven when the Durham club was founded had a keen sense of the importance of improving appearance.  The first project was creation of a city park where the City Center District Bull Plaza is today, complete with a stone gazebo (which still exists today at Bennett Place State Historic Site in Durham.)

This is also the era when war broke out between those bent on blighting public roadsides with billboards for rent and those concerned with scenic rights and preservation.  Between 1900 and 1920, the number of cars nationwide increased by 1000 times and with them a network of roads.

By 1920 one candidate for governor in North Carolina was campaigning for voting rights for women and blacks as well as preserving scenic character as a means to make this a tourism state.

O. Max Gardner lost that election, but he ran again and won in 1928.  He then commissioned a report on the state of roadsides in North Carolina.

The report documents that even at the maximum speed limits of 35-40 miles per hour at that time, approaches to cities such as Charlotte and Asheville were blighted by a billboard every 4 to 5 seconds.  Nearly 350 scared the 30-mile route from the east to Durham alone.

Today we know a lot more about the scientific and economic value of eliminating billboards and preserving roadside views with trees and vegetation but it isn’t just the Rotary group that superimposed that billboard on Durham that is oblivious.

Wrapping itself in the cloak of states’ rights to avoid federal initiatives, the North Carolina General Assembly has ironically declared war on local communities even though that level of government is far more trusted among Americans.

The Republican-controlled legislature is not satisfied with its tragic authorization a few years ago for out-of-state billboard companies to override local ordinances and clear cut billions of dollars worth of roadside trees statewide.

Now the legislature is also trying to deny communities the right to protect neighborhood design standards to preserve sense-of-place.  They are also meddling with Charlotte’s management of its airport and trying to strip away the authority of elected school boards over construction of schools.

Many in this state, beginning at the highest levels and obviously including some Rotarians need to revisit The Four-Way Test.

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