Thursday, March 22, 2012

Don't Blame Billboards on Small Business

Small businesses hate advertising but the outdoor billboard industry and its allies still “strap them to the bumper” as rationale to fend off the 8 out of every 10 residents who oppose the cutting of more trees to make them seen from even greater distances.

A scientific survey of small businesses reveals that less than 3% use off premise signs such as outdoor roadside billboards extensively compared to 86.4% that never use them, a ratio of 29 to 1.

This was lost on the authors of a letter the Durham Chamber of Commerce penned a few weeks ago, but apparently misdated 2010, to NCDOT in support of temporary rules that will permit outdoor billboard companies to circumvent local restrictions and the wishes of residents if they clear cut scores of public forest areas here as planned.Chamber Support of Tree Cutting

To be generous, the Chamber isn’t the only misguided organization as scores of others including many legislators become aware that a bill granting the clear cutting did not include the provisions promised to protect local values and restrictions or any requirement for replanting or even payment for destruction of public property.

Hopefully the Chamber letter is under reconsideration even as it is being waved around by outdoor billboard companies and allies inside NCDOT to dilute the bans that Durham and other communities place on billboards and override the greater value that these communities and residents statewide place on trees.

But it is interesting how an organization that even receives some public funding comes to proactively give support to policies in direct contradiction to the overwhelming majority of its stakeholders… in fact, even directly contradicting the sustainability policies of its largest contributors, including Duke University which is committed to the goal of tree protection and being a “responsible environmental citizen in the life of the surrounding community.”

No conspiracy is required. Without sufficient context or institutional memory or consultation to balance the pushiness of one or two individuals fronting for special interests, inertia alone is enough to freeze others who would otherwise object and once “the wagons are circled” any organization can become its own hostage.

Just ask members of the state General Assembly.

Before one reads too much into the Chamber’s letter, keep in mind that chambers are intensely political organizations.  Give or take, they may actually represent fewer than 1 out of every 6 businesses in any given community but their positions can be infiltrated and subtly contaminated by just one or two savvy individuals or special interests.

Remember, by definition all politics is personal, not logical.  Often the smaller the organization, the more personal it becomes.  I know from serving on the boards and/or volunteering for chambers in several communities over 26 of the last 40 years.

Typically chambers have little involvement in marketing, another thing that confuses many small businesses, because with few exceptions that isn’t really a part of a chamber’s mission. That mission falls to dedicated official community-destination marketing organizations (DMOs.)

If Durham’s Chamber had taken the lead of the community’s destination marketing organization with which it works closely on so many things, it would have grasped that billboards already have plenty of clearance through selective cutting.  The chamber would have also learned that trees are of far more value to economic development including a good business climate.

The chamber would have also learned that there are far better and less expensive alternatives to outdoor billboards when out-of-home advertising is needed and the alternatives don’t sacrifice the community’s scenic character.

So, if not small, independent businesses, who are the few remaining advertisers keeping outdoor billboards on life support?  As of 2010 reports they aren’t even based in Durham or North Carolina or probably even members of a local chamber.  Think Verizon, AT&T, GEICO, Chase Bank, McDonalds and Anheuser-Busch to name a handful.

Do we really owe them our trees, one of North Carolina’s signature assets?  No and Hell No!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a little difficult to respect a letter that is misdated (by two years), misspelled ("intensions"), has bad grammar ("...bill passed overwhelming with ..."), and so obviously sucked up the billboard industry's flackery wholesale. I doubt I would hire him as my director of public policy.