Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Pivot Point In Durham’s Image Turnaround

Last week, an old friend from my days as a community-destination marketing executive made a point to stop by for lunch on his way through Durham, North Carolina where I live.

He knew that the organization I led for over 20 years before retiring several years ago had deployed scientific opinion polling, in the early 1990s (a novel approach at the time) to annually document and track Durham’s image, and he was curious about when I could first detect the turnaround.

The answer, for the benefit of communities facing the need for a similar remedy, requires that what follows is more a chapter than a post.

Before answering my friend’s question, we each noted how interesting it is that so many people mark the turnaround by more recent “brick and mortar” developments, when in fact, these only indicate when their particular image of Durham probably turned around or because these are more tangible signs with which they can relate.

It is ironic that I became known for the use of statistical polling during my 40-year career because I hated statistics and only took a course in college, if memory serves me, as a math alternative to taking more foreign language courses.

I had a sense of déjà vu when political operatives during the recent presidential campaign tried to discredit truly scientific polling as a means of bullying the results.  Politicians, like journalists and also many business leaders, have been slow to embrace polling because by custom they have customary relied on anecdotal opinions, their own or those of peers or operatives or “he-said-she-said” accounts in the news media.

As noted by John Dickerson in a piece for Slate about how the Romney team misjudged the election outcome - “According to those involved, it was a mix of believing anecdotes about party enthusiasm and an underestimation of their opponents’ talents.”

I smiled when a post-election Fordham University analysis of polls taken during the last few months state the following while ranking North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling among the three most accurate:

“Most (22) polls overestimated Romney support [Romney supporters tried to denigrate polls,] while six (6)overestimated Obama strength (indicated with a * below), but none of the 28 national pre-election polls I examined had a significant partisan bias.”

On average Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy       found that the 28 polls were only off 1.3 percentage points from the actual outcome.

That statistics class I took in college has come in handy but over the years I gained my practical understanding of statistics, mathematical probability and polling under the tutelage of experts such as Dave Dittman who recently sold his Anchorage company, Dr. Larry Long who now heads the School of Communication at Illinois State University and especially Dr. Mitch Javidi, chairman and founder of NanoPhrades.

My questions were so incessant and often repetitive about the nature of reliable polling that they probably wish I had read The Cartoon Guide to Statistics which was published about the time we initially began to use scientific opinion polling to track Durham’s image among both internal and external audiences.

We used the polls not only for tracking but to unwrap the drivers of image among various populations, first ruling out that the sources of the negativity were not self-inflicted by residents.

The polling was especially important to benchmark what strategies and tactics were working or not working.  We also used the results to not only educate officials and overcome no shortage of conventional (but always inaccurate) wisdom-theorists but to energize a grass-roots movement of hundreds of Durham Image Watchers.

We conducted a lot of trial and error, always informed by follow-up polling.  For instance, conventional marketing tools such as advertising proved highly ineffective as a means to execute changes in community image and this is something that has since been validated by studies reported in numerous scientific journals.

We were also able to determine through the polling that there was virtually no correlation between a change in image and community improvements, especially large development projects.  Not only do these projects, regardless of popularity or related buzz, fail to reach enough mass to make a dent in overall perceptions among large populations, but puzzlingly they also do not correlate with improved personal experience among external audiences who visit or work here.

However, as far as developments go, we did learn that the information that finally turned Durham’s image around was also the information that helped overcome obstacles to such things as financing for community improvement and development projects.

A community can’t rely on developments to change or enhance image, but it just as certainly can’t attract or shape major development projects without confronting image.  This is a hard lesson for officials to understand, especially for those obsessed with “ribbon cuttings” or whenever they seem to be under the spell of what economists call development rent-seekers.

Fueling the news media throughout the nation with accurate information and perspective about Durham and Durham-based assets is a key part, if not the most important aspect of community-destination marketing anywhere, and key to this is making sure to follow up on inaccuracies before they are embedded in reference archives.

We intensified this strategy when the opinion polls revealed that issues surrounding Durham’s image were anchored in a 22-25 county area roughly identical to the broadcast and print range dominated by news media operating out of or in Raleigh, North Carolina, a designation used to create the self-serving fiction this sprawling land mass was somehow all a single market.

Through first hand accounts gleaned during interviews with people who had been active in Durham, Raleigh and the surrounding areas at the time also led us to a study of actual vs. revisionist histories of the last 60 years, we were able to nail down the origins of very clever strategies, some unwitting, others purposeful at the root of what influenced negative public impressions of Durham.

Some Raleigh development, business and media interests began to panic in the 1940s when they astutely surmised that their geographic distance as well as labels then given the jointly-owned airport, coupled with Durham’s larger size at the time might put them at a disadvantage.

They moved quickly, often using subterfuge, to undermine Durham behind the scenes by convincing the then U.S. War Department to flip-flop the name of the jointly-owned airport, located midway between the two communities, from the original and and customarily-done alphabetical “Durham-Raleigh” Airport so it would become the only airport name out of alphabetical sequence, “Raleigh-Durham.”

The genius of this marketing subterfuge is that it is based on the reality that what you can’t change through product, you can often sway through distorted marketing and branding.  The sleight-of-hand may have also been quietly facilitated by an Under Secretary in the War Department at the time, Kenneth Claiborne Royall, the lead partner in the Raleigh law firm of Royall, Gosney and Smith.

This subterfuge continued when, in the late 1940s, Raleigh media interests pressed for the first audience measurement designations to lump Durham and Raleigh together, still roughly the same population at the time, and place Raleigh first in name of the so-called “Raleigh-Durham” (now known as the Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville designated media area.)

This move paid off even more as the first television stations went on air, first in Durham in 1954 and then in Raleigh in 1956, by guaranteeing that Raleigh would often be the only city to benefit when the reference was frequently truncated on-air and in national news references.

Durham’s media identity virtually vanished as it is today when news stories and blog posts across the nation either misidentify its television presence as Raleigh or lump them as though they are one big city, Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville, with Raleigh at the center of course.

Lumping the markets together, while disregarding research about how people truly shop or perceive where they live, guaranteed media companies billions of dollars from networks which paid affiliates at the time to carry programming based on coverage area.

Even to this day it enables outlets to reap billions in ad revenue by enabling them to charge ad rates based on the fiction that consumers will travel across 20-25 counties to make purchases readily available in their hometown or county.

The identity heist didn’t stop there.

As confessed to me, during a joint-business flight to London, by one of the architects of this subterfuge, in the late 1950s and early 1960s Raleigh developers, business and media interests deliberately rewrote the narrative about the location and origins of Research Triangle Park to mask and suppress its location in Durham, which still continues to contaminate that incredible facility’s newly announced master plan.

This particular subterfuge was made possible with the untimely deaths in 1954 of two individuals, Dr. Howard Odum of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who first germinated the idea for RTP, and Governor Bill Umstead, the Durham native who embedded the seeds for its development when he appointed one of Odum’s closest associates to a task force he challenged with a total make-over of North Carolina state government, especially economic development.

As soon at the year following their deaths, both the role of these two pioneers as well as descriptions of Durham as the location for Research Triangle Park began to disappear from narratives, supplanted by Raleigh-centric references to its location such a “near the airport” and “west of Morrisville,” a small town in Raleigh’s Wake County orbit.

Historical records, obscured by more recent revisionist narratives, note that in 1955 and 1956, RTP’s first chief, Dr. George L. Simpson, Jr., a 34 year old war veteran and disciple of Odum’s readily acknowledged Durham as the location of the Park, just four miles from downtown Durham.  Simpson also relied on Durham leaders to assemble the land and the City of Durham to run water to the site.

He wrote:

"Durham’s citizens have moved the Park forward with vision, leadership, and support…Other partners have been important…but the relationship with the City of Durham has always been special…"

Simpson moved on in 1965, when at the midway point of the race to land astronauts on the Moon, as a social scientist he was named as a top administrator at NASA, an agency dominated by those steeped in the physical sciences.

He was tasked with giving the agency a better grounding in the economic development potential of technology.  He later served for many years as chancellor of the University System of Georgia and led that entity through its transformation during the decade of the 1970s.

Raleigh business and media interests, still fearful they were losing out, rushed to bully the narrative of RTP from being midway between three research universities to being midway between three cities and from there they invented the notion of a “Raleigh” side of RTP obscuring the reality that Durham encompassed the Park as well as the the identities of two other towns between the Park and Raleigh.

From there, with the complicity of Raleigh-based (one big market with them at the center) news media, it was a small leap, according to several of my first-hand informants, for Raleigh business interests to invent two other fictions, 1) that Raleigh was the center of the region (which is and has always been polycentric with no dominant center) and Durham a suburb and 2) that the entire area was one big real estate market with Raleigh, of course, the preferable location.

Ironically, this avarice, born of insecurity is often rationalized by those who came later as “regionalism,” although at its roots are the enemies of that concept.

All of this was enabled by Durham’s underestimation of the power of marketing vs. physical reality and the fact that it would be another thirty years before Durham would form an agency officially tasked with defending and promoting its identity and reclaiming its story.

Through the years, even though Durham leaders were always in positions to remedy this subterfuge , they preferred instead, when I arrived to jump-start an organization to promote Durham’s identity, to tell me that I urgently needed to do something about it.

As outspoken as Durham is internally, it has always been very unpretentious and somewhat deferential in regional relationships, reminding me of members of a family (the region is truly a family of distinct and separate communities) who try to moderate a Thanksgiving Dinner where other family members are over the top and over-reaching..

All of this is to say that even though those responsible are long gone and their organizations under more enlightened leadership, the finger-prints of this subterfuge are still evident, as revealed in RTP’s newly unveiled master plan, which perpetuates the fiction of a one big Raleigh-Durham hotel market.

Any review of data now going back 25 years reveals that not only is Durham a distinct hotel market, of which the area encompassing RTP is a part, but Chapel Hill is a separate hotel market from both Durham and other parts of Orange County and Raleigh and Wake County, another metro entirely, are four or five separate and distinct hotel markets as easily detected by the independence of rates and differences in customers.

As one former Durham official famously said while defending our attempts to turn Durham’s image around, “there simply is no such place as Raleigh-Durham.  It is simply the name of an airport.”

Revealing the fallacy of a common market more than two decades ago helped Durham recoup thousands of travelers who confused by mistaken references had been inconveniently housed in other communities scores of miles away from their intended destination.

Clarifications have also meant that feasibility consultants for new hotel projects have realized the true potential of Durham, nearly quadrupling the number of hotels when netting out those retired from service while more accurate marketing and Durham’s emergence as one of the state’s leading destinations has tripled the annual number of visitors to Durham including more than 2.5 times the number of lodging room-nights.

Who knows how many more decades it will be before all vestiges of the fiction that this polycentric region is centric are erased.  In the meantime this fiction has cost the region billions of dollars in the failed application of centric solutions to a polycentric model and atrophied community organizations that should be vibrant in each community.

Researching and assessing this background was a crucial part to understanding the opinion polls that helped unwrap Durham’s image problem but they also led our team to the strategy that first began to make noticeable the gradual turnaround.

The polls revealed that Durham’s image nationwide, region-wide and even state-wide was impeded only by word-of-mouth from people and news originating in the 20-25 county “area of negativity” surrounding Durham [think high school gossip] and focused most heavily in the two counties located to the east and west of Durham.

Even the tone of news stories originating in this area were far more likely influenced by word-of-mouth than the word-of-mouth was to be influenced by the news becoming one big feedback-loop.

Because visitors, newcomers and relocating businesses had to run a gauntlet of this negativity in news stories as well as perceptions gleaned while coming through the jointly-owned airport and even around Durham water-coolers, where 3 in 5 were non-residents, the situation was already dire and then along came the Internet.

Analysis revealed that the news media in this 20-25 county area of negativity, where the locus of Durham’s image problem was anchored, tended to contaminate the national news with misinformation by attributing negative information specifically related to Durham while misattributing positive information as well as that generated by Durham-based assets either to Raleigh or an amorphous, non-existent Raleigh “area.”

Through trial and error though we began to see the needle begin to move on Durham’s image turnaround as we were able, one-by-one, story-by-story, correction-by-correction, to persuade national newspapers, magazines and cable news outlets to begin properly attributing information about Durham and Durham-based assets to Durham while always careful not to take anything away from other communities.

The turn around began with simply helping the national news media understand the polycentric geography of the region and reclaiming the Durham physical location of RTP from the amorphous fiction that it can only be referred to as equidistance from everywhere.  Knowing that RTP had to be located somewhere in specific, the national media, mislead, had simply miss-assigned it to Raleigh.

By promoting accurate stories at the national level back into the area of North Carolina where condescension about Durham was anchored, we were able, with the vigilance and outspokenness of Durham Image Watchers and an example set by the Durham Herald-Sun, to persuade the Raleigh-based news media [often guilting them if necessary but always appealing to their sense-of-honor] to be more accurate and balanced.

No touch-point could be left unaddressed, including revealing that the RTP postal address did not signify a city separate from Durham but rather a highly prestigious vanity Durham US postal substation, originally proposed by some as a means to obscure every sign of its Durham location.

Seeing the needle move helped us deflect those who were nervous about the strategy.  Those who should have been or claimed in news reports to be shoulder-to-shoulder with us, usually offered only moral support instead.

Only one elected official was reliably proactive, most preferring to simply lend moral support or to bravely protect me from those who, fearing they would lose out as Durham reclaimed its image and identity, sought repeatedly to get me fired.

That was okay because it is simply the mission of any community-destination marketing organization, such as those I formerly led, to take point as the guardian as well as promoter of a community’s image and identity and sense-of-place, but the reluctance of others to be proactive inevitably slowed the turn around.

It is often far more common for people to associate things that are more tangible with a community image turnaround.  That is understandable and tangibles never hurt.  But the real answer to my friend’s question is found in nearly two decades of data.

Durham’s image turnaround began in the mid –1990s.  Slow but sure, even glacial at times, the turn around picked up momentum and by the end of that decade it was reaching a critical mass.  The more we were able to reclaim Durham’s story, including that of Durham-based assets, the more the turnaround accelerated.  The only retardant was availability of sufficient resources.

I wish I could say the ultimate success was a result of a fail-proof strategic plan but success came through persistent trial and error and never-ending adjustments and innovations, always informed and calibrated through opinion polling.

Adapting a quote by John F. Kennedy’s quote that “victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” successfully turning a community’s image around has a thousand fathers after the fact, but in my experience, while those of us on the front lines may have felt orphaned in those early days of trial and error, long before the advent of social media networks there were thousands of passionate, patient and encouraging Durham residents who stood shoulder to shoulder with those of use who were paid to turn things around.

Credit should also go to people who pointed out where to look for  understanding and examples of things that had contributed most to the problem, if not its cause, many with roots in Durham and many more who didn’t but knew that turning Durham’s image around would be a win-win for the entire state.

It would not have happened without the honor of a confessor who helped mastermind the subterfuge that so successfully undermined and suppressed Durham’s Image and the turnaround was greatly aided, if not accelerated, when more self-assured Raleigh counterparts and allies began to step forward as well and help us clarify Durham’s identity.

It would also not have happened without the the inspiration, guidance and background volunteered by people such as the late Durham banker George Watts Hill, Durham State Senator Kenneth Royall, Durham media executive Ernie Greup and UNC System-president William Friday, all intimately knowledgeable of the period during which time these events took place including RTP’s earliest stages.

In summary though, while background helped us identify the root causes of the problem and the data helped us sense when and what turned the tide, in words that a writer for The New Yorker magazine, Adam Gopnik, used many months ago to describe a turn around in that city:

“Epidemics seldom end with miracle cures… ‘Merely chipping away at the problem around the edges’ is usually the very best thing to do with a problem; keep chipping away patiently and, eventually, you get to its heart.”

For Durham’s turnaround, it took a lot of chipping and where and what to chip away at was identified by research and constant polling.

The turn around also took more time than it would have because it was important not to damage strategic partnerships.  The undermining of Durham’s identity was due to aggressive over-reaching in nearby communities.

It was born more out of insecurity and fear than ill will.  Any frustration or sense of outrage had to be tempered with awareness that Durham had been unaware of the importance of these actions and in the minds of some had let it happen. 

I summarize this background, not to rub salt into old wounds, but as a lesson to other communities facing an image turn-around.  It is impossible without also piecing together the particular roots and motives of the things that influenced image over time.  Even then it takes trial and error to find which buttons work to move the needle and it is impossible to detect without constant tracking polls.

Even though Durham will have soon reduced the percentage of people who perpetuate a negative image to single digits including only the most virulent and hardcore, the job of reversing the enabling precepts, if possible at all, will take decades more and relentless vigilance.

1 comment:

Rodney Derrick said...

Excellent article Reyn. One problem though is that you really do not mention two of the essential roots of the the problem-- the intense racialism directed at Durham because of the demographics here and the leadership role of Black folk and the intensity of the university loyalties and attitudes toward the home of the elite private school, i.e. Duke.