Friday, May 20, 2011

Is It Really Possible To Generate Community Pride?

Several readers, including some who are still involved in community/destination marketing (DMOs), emailed me for more information after a blog I posted in March. Even though that’s not how it is supposed to work, readers people seem to prefer to email me directly rather than post comments and I don’t mind.

The inquirers wondered how we were able to generate pride among Durham residents that is benchmarked by scientific surveys at an incredible 17 to 1 compared to an average of 1 to 1 in other communities, including those presumed to have substantial resident pride.Capture

The short answer is we didn’t, generate it that is.

When I arrived in Durham in 1989 to jumpstart the community organization envisioned as the “heart, soul, and energy of Durham as a destination and the defender of the community’s image and brand and guardian of its unique sense of place,” I had the distinct advantage of coming in “under the radar.”

This permitted me to get acquainted with Durham from the inside out, at a level unavailable to most people when they move here and are deluged the first few years with information about only the places they are supposed to see, gatherings at which they are supposed to appear and people they are supposed to meet.

I was immediately impressed with how “real and organic” and exceptional this new community seemed to be in so many ways and how intensely proud but unpretentious people were about this community. But when I was in the usual gatherings, I was told and overheard being said that Durham was a “red-headed-step-child” and needed to feel better about itself and that this had always been the case.

Only during scientific research to unwrap the issues beginning in the very early 1990s did I learn that the people who felt the former were residents and the people who felt the latter were either non-residents including those who happened to work or own or manage businesses here or sycophants seeking to impress them.

The Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB) didn’t generate Durham’s incredible community pride and passion among residents as much as we measured and identified it, revealed, nurtured and empowered it, protected and defended it and gave it much needed oxygen and breathing room by going on the offensive with fact-based and emotionally-honest messaging to back off and remedy the condescension, misattribution, misinformation and slights that dampened and inhibited it.

We were fortunate that the things oppressing and suppressing and distorting Durham pride were centered in two nearby communities. Of course, we didn’t expect to change any minds there. But we took persistent action to rescue and inoculate people who were positive or neutral when confronted by the sources that deliberately fostered negativity and put-downs and were much to powerful and intense to be addressed solely with positive promotion.

In the process, by being persistently passionate but fact-based, working on areas of improvement and simultaneously amplifying equally fact-based and emotive positives over a number of years we were able to convert what the authors of the new book Change Anything term “accomplices” to that negativity into friends.

It is someone else’s responsibility to deal with that issue now that I’m retired but the job is never finished.

But I can tell you what I would do now if I would trying to empower and fuel community pride among residents in other communities based on what I learned over that two-decade turnaround:

  • Get to know your community from the inside out. Explore the nooks and crannies, the offbeat neighborhoods and districts. Visit with people in their 80s and 90s who were born there including folks of all backgrounds and ethnicities.

  • Get to know your community’s official and unofficial history. The essence of pride among residents will be almost temporal and will be found in the cultural and environmental, as well as the built characteristics, especially those that are distinctive vs. mainstream.

  • Don’t make the mistake many organizations make by reaching back only to the time when white men began commercial enterprises. A community’s soul goes back much further and deeper than that.

  • Don’t wait until everything is “fixed” to take action regarding community pride. You can’t “build” your way to revealing and empowering community pride, but the fact-based and emotive messaging and defense of community pride also opens the doors and clears the way for fostering and financing preservation, adaptive reuse and emulation of sense of place attributes.

  • True community pride has little, if anything, to do with being “major league.” The fleeting pride that often comes from athletic achievement doesn’t accrue long to the places where it occurs and if elemental at all is more a result of community pride, than the actual cause.

  • Don’t assume pride among residents is generalized based just on what you hear from elected officials or boosters. Ask an expert in “diffusion” and scientific public opinion polling, typically a non-resident, to ensure credibility.

  • The expert selected need to be familiar with field-tested likert-scale questions based on results first from interviews with individuals and balanced and inclusive focused groups. Then to fully mine their insights, have them repeat and analyze the surveys each year.

  • Based on the initial results, in addition to residents, you may need to survey sources of non-resident commuters, communities in which the majority of people who work in your news media and places like your airport live and maybe statewide or nationwide.

  • It is important for the survey questions to explore community pride, community image, including perceptions of what one would expect based on “what others say” as well as those based on personal experience.

  • Sound, scientific survey results provide a foundation for deployment and targeting of communication tactics beginning with communicating the results themselves. Advertising-based community pride campaigns have been ineffective for decades now for the same reasons its effectively has declined so rapidly since the 1980s including too much clutter and lack of credibility. Start with earned media and maybe as blend of direct marketing and social media tactics.

I haven’t yet read his book, For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places, published the same month as my blog post that stimulated these inquiries, but based on his guest post on The Infrastructurist blog, entitled Why Aren’t We Building ‘Emotionally Connected’ Cities, author Peter Kageyama “gets it” and not just because he used the recent event Marry Durham as an example.

We’ve also both been students of the multi-year Knight/Gallup study that found strong correlations between community pride and passion and higher levels of local GDP and loyalty and healthy economies.

Sadly, too many officials, developers and even community marketing executives feel much too important to grasp the significance of core community pride among residents let alone how it can either be fostered and leveraged for greater results or smothered and extinguished.

As for me, at least in the case of Durham, I learned how to nurture and foster it through trial and error, testing and measurement and creative execution and messaging and story telling. But for communities where it has been extinguished or exists only as a dying ember, it may be too late.

But I hope not.


Anonymous said...


Would you be willing to share your survey questions with us?

S. Ritchie
Comstock Community Center
Comstock, MI

Angelina Marshall said...

I don’t suppose I have read anything like this before. Extremely impressed with the excellence of the knowledge offered. I sincerely hope that you keep up with the good job conducted.