Monday, April 08, 2002

City image needs polishing

By Cliff Peale
and James Pilcher

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For four days last year, a city once known for its unique chili and steamboats instead became associated with pictures of police in riot gear and angry, rock-throwing youths. Now, on the eve of Tuesday's one-year anniversary of the outbreak of violence, Cincinnati officials still are fighting the past. They cringe at the possibility that anyone from outside the region still recalls these images when hearing the word “Cincinnati.”

        There is more at stake than just status. Valuable tourism, convention and development dollars can be affected when a city's image is marred.

        National media observers, public relations experts and those in other cities who have endured riots say that even though a year has passed, it will be a long, tough battle to make the rest of the world see Cincinnati in a better light.

        The surest way to restore the Queen City's image, they say, is not a slick public relations campaign. Officials must prove that Cincinnati's racial problems are healing.

        “For a lot of viewers, the thing they think about a place or subject is the last thing they heard about it,” says Dr. Hub Brown, a broadcast journalism professor at Syracuse University.

        “There are still people associating Los Angeles with the riots there. And television deals in polar opposites, so a lot of people remember the arguing between the police representative (then-Fraternal Order of Police president Keith Fangman) and other black leaders, and think Cincinnati is still this place where no one gets along and is in the middle of a street fight.”

        For those who question how powerful television and its images can be, consider that many Americans said they got some of the news of the 2000 presidential campaign from the monologues of late-night joke-meisters David Letterman and Jay Leno.

        Cincinnati may be lucky that it apparently didn't become a target for either man in 2001. An Internet search revealed no jokes from them — and their monologues are carefully monitored and cataloged by aficionados — in the wake of the riots.

        National Lampoon did weigh in, however. The magazine posted a spoof news story on its Web site that had Cincinnati police killing 700 runners at Cincinnati's Flying Pig Marathon soon after the riots.

        The repercussions from coverage of riots can last for decades.

        Los Angeles economic development officials say no one has analyzed the long-term impacts of that city's riots in 1992 that followed the acquittal of police officers charged in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.

        But those numbers could be in the billions of dollars, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

        “We had 25.9 million visitors in 1989 ... and it took us to 2000 to return to more than 24 million,” Mr. Kyser says. The 1994 earthquake, as well as flooding and brush fires, have also made an impact, he added.

        Cincinnati's riots and their af termath made national news, with major media outlets sending reporters and photographers to the city to cover the story, one tailor-made for television.

National scrutiny

        This week's anniversary, coupled with the boycott called by some African-American activists and last week's settlement of the racial profiling lawsuit, have gotten notice in newspapers nationwide and on cable news talk shows, including:

        • Hannity & Colmes on Fox News, where one nationally known black civil rights leader said that the current boycott was sensitive to how the city's image is playing across the country.

        • At a tightly organized show of unity Thursday, city leaders refused to answer questions about the boycott. One speaker admonished the media to write “positive” stories about the weekend's events.

        So far, there is little evidence of substantial damage to the local economy, beyond the cancellation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention with about 8,000 delegates.

Image is everything?

        But the boycott has made national news each time a prominent black entertainer, including Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Cosby, has canceled appearances here because of it.

        Those civic and corporate leaders who have been working on race-relations issues emphasize that it takes more than a year. But they recognize the symbolic importance of the anniversary.

        “Image is important, because image is what got us into this thing with the cancellations,” says retired federal judge Nathaniel Jones. “But image is something that can be controlled.”

        The city is trying to do that, working with national media such as CBS This Morning and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which are in Cincinnati looking for stories. CBS ran a story on its morning program in March about a youth boxing program sponsored by pizza entrepreneur Buddy LaRosa.

        Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce spokesman Ray Buse said the calls from national media started several weeks ago and intensified last week as the anniversary approached.

        “It's definitely a challenge, one we have worked hard to prepare for,” says Mr. Buse. “That story (in the Washington Post) is the kind of story we're trying to balance, to tell the broader perspective of some of the good work going on in Cincinnati.”

"Focus on the positives'

        One public relations expert says that it will take a lot of perseverance for the positive to overcome the negative.

        “You just have to focus on the positives, although it won't happen overnight,” says Michael Shmarak, a communications and media strategy specialist for the Chicago office of Ketchum Public Relations. “It's just a matter of repetition.”

        Efforts to get a positive message out have begun.

        Late last month, the city launched a marketing campaign partially paid for by the Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau. A brochure features Mayor Charlie Luken standing next to Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, an African-American. It highlights the opportunities for African-American and other minority business owners. Of the five dozen or so faces in the pamphlet, the only white one is Mr. Luken's.

        In Los Angeles, the calls have become more about the recent Academy Awards as well as about businesses reopening in the South Central area where most of that city's rioting occurred.

        “Those memories have probably faded from the national perspective,” says Lisa Fitch, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “But the scars are still there for those who live here. Still, the stories we get are the positive ones about people rebuilding and about ribbon cuttings.”

        And that's the approach many experts say Cincinnati should take. Dr. Brown and other outside observers say that the city should worry more about creating positive change; positive coverage will come and the image will change. They also say that the entire region needs to be involved, including suburbs in Butler and Warren counties and in Northern Kentucky, since the entire Tristate economy depends upon it.

        “You have to really deal with the issues, and not just give it PR spin,” says Ray Hanania, vice president of public relations for Kemper Lesnik Communications of Chicago. “And you can't run from the problems. What I tell clients in this situation is to do something of substance that brings the media back to you.

        “The negative is obviously a story, but legitimately turning a negative into a positive is also a good story, especially if other cities are looking to see how you did it.”

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