Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Feeding Frenzy Lesson for Community Image

Some of my former peers in visitor-centric economic and cultural development seemed relieved to learn something that became clear to me nearly a decade ago.

Less than four years before I retired after nearly four decades in that profession, a year-long firestorm of negative news coverage erupted.

Fortunately, the community marketing organization (DMO) I led at the time was already far more savvy than most about reputation management.

More on that lesson learned later but some of my colleagues seem to be drawing a mistaken conclusion from visitor surveys that negative news obsessions - even when local - are harmless to a community’s potential to draw visitors.

A few clarifications are in order:

  • There is no such thing as local news.  News outlets measure audience by huge swaths of counties including dozens and dozens of cities and towns, based on where they hope to have influence.

Durham, North Carolina, where I live is part of a so-called media market that stretches over 22 counties and parts of two states.

It is an archaic, obsolete model in a digital world where businesses and consumers now have truly hyper local alternatives.

  • Even when periodic resident surveys show a community’s self-image is high and relatively immune from negative “local” news, there is another consideration.

It can still contaminate the views of not only potential daytrip visitors from surrounding communities but if, like Durham, a community generates so many jobs that 2 in 3 are held by commuting non-residents it results in the perpetuation of negative water-cooler myths.

When these non-residents hold hospitality-related jobs and interface with visitors at airports and in hotels, restaurants, stores and features, the impact can be hugely negative.

So management of a community’s reputation and defense of its brand or personality is broader than just what populations of potential visitors think or how immune they may be to negative “local” news.

Of course, all of this requires a DMO to continually monitor the opinions of residents, commuters and nearby, statewide, regional and national populations.

There are other uses of this information.  Local stakeholders, including businesses owned or operated by non-residents and especially elected officials and local governments, often fall under the misconception that a community can build its way to prominence.

There are a lot of good reasons for a community to continually augment its visitor-related product, especially if it freshens place-based assets that truly differentiate a community without selling its soul to generica.

Regular opinion surveys such as those I mention above will not show any linkage of opinion to new developments.

I say “any” because after studying scores of these, there is little or no linkage to perception.  Buzz created around new developments, even when and if sustained, just can’t reach enough people to dent misimpression, which are fueled by much more pervasive influences.

The DMOs I led used image surveys dating back to the very early 1980s so I’m not basing these observations on just one community or a particular building splurge or series of developments over time.

I was always intrigued that new development had little or no impact on perceptions but, as I promised, I will delve into what we learned from that year-long news frenzy from March 2006 until April 2007.

Because it a DMOs role to deal with news coverage, promoting and facilitating stories and making clarifications as well as serving the needs of journalists and editors whether they be “local,” state, regional, national or global, a byproduct of this event is that a lot of local stakeholders became more cognizant and appreciative of our role.

The coverage was regarding allegations of rape by some lacrosse team members at Duke.

Both the Durham Police and truly local news media were confident the allegations, while troubling, were without merit.

But then the newspaper in nearby Raleigh began to fan the flames which in turn reignited listserv chatter, especially among well-meaning social justice activists.

I happened to be on one such listserv during that re-ignition.

Thanks to amplification by the state AP office based in Raleigh, we were soon besieged by news trucks and a feeding frenzy of inaccurate information, innuendo, pejorative and speculation.

The Durham Police were forced to reopen the investigation and a lot of individual reputations and careers were ultimately destroyed by the time the Attorney General’s office came to the same conclusion made initially by investigators.

The experience has forever made me skeptical that during news frenzies we are really getting full and balanced information.

Well-meaning chamber types here, failing to understand or respect roles and always eager for a parade to lead, called meetings and began to reinvent the wheel about Durham’s image.

This gave us the opportunity to explain what was being done by the Durham DMO and an innovative coalition it created and facilitates called the Durham Public Information & Communications Council.

Made by those unaware that advertising has long been proven ineffective when it comes to reputation management, the suggestion was made to place full-page ads in national newspapers to set the record straight.

The Durham DMO responded that first we should probably see if perceptions had changed due to the intense and frenzied coverage and ran one of its periodic surveys.

We learned that nationwide, Durham’s positive rating was up and its negative rating down but that some people who didn’t know before had moved to neutral.

By the year after the frenzy, Durham’s image was higher than ever and its negative rating at an all-time low.  Awareness was at an all time high.

The community’s image as a place to visit reached an all-time high with a 16-to-1 positive to negative ratio.  Its image as a place for new business and growth potential was also higher than ever.

Many credited the opportunity Durham’s DMO took during the crisis to better familiarize reporters and editors and lay the seeds for future stories still being reaped today.

The lesson, of course, is not to go out and manufacture negative news frenzies as a means to boost awareness. 

The take-away is that reputation is the product of a lot of very subtle but manageable influences, not just the news.  Covering news is a very difficult profession but at its best a blunt instrument when it comes to getting the “full story” about something.

This is especially true, now that so many national news outlets, rather than take time to investigate, often just quote other news including reporters and editors.

It has been made even more difficult by the fact that as a nation we seem to expect every issue to be viewed as scripted, reality television, even, it appears, our elections for higher office.

I still shake my head at how many communities when faced by a similar frenzy, push their DMOs into wasting millions in advertising not just because ads have long been shown ineffective but because they haven’t even benchmarked perceptions through scientific polling.

Ads, by the way, are scientifically proven to be ineffective because they far too blunt a marketing tactic.  Studies show that they merely harden existing perceptions both negative and positive.

Yelling about yourself as a community, which is what ads are, is not the way to build credibility with external audiences although they may give boosters and officials a false but expensive sense of solace.

Being authentic, honest and persistently earning the respect of national news channels over time is far more effective.  Standing up to inaccuracies and injustice is better done one on one and by equipping grass-roots movements to intervene.

This isn’t to take news media off the hook.  Time has proven the validity of Dr. Barry Glassner’s research in his excellent book entitled, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, something lost on a business journal tactic of stirring up what we should fear from restaurants with an A health rating.

As traditional media collapses, except for those with steadied and principled news management, we will see more and more news outlets manufacturing fear and ruining reputations, if not to stir up ratings, then to blackmail reluctant advertisers.

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