Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Is your town in the media ‘crosshairs’? Four ‘tips from the trenches’ for re-claiming your story

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

It’s every community developer’s PR nightmare. You’ve targeted a neighborhood for improvement and are making headway, when suddenly you wake up one morning to see the community described on the front page of The New York Times as “fighting a heroin epidemic so entrenched that it has confounded all efforts to combat it.”

That’s exactly what happened on Feb. 28 to Ludy Biddle, executive director of NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, and her team. The Northwest neighborhood of Rutland, a rural town of 16,000, had long been plagued by a high concentration of unemployment and poverty, and the resulting blight. Many of the community’s once-beautiful Victorian homes had been acquired by absentee owners and carved into dense, virtually single-resident-occupancy apartments. Among the negative consequences of the town’s challenges was drug abuse, fed by typically out-of-state dealers. The problem had become so serious that it was a major theme of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s “State of the State” address.

However, Biddle’s organization and others have been working hard to reverse those trends; in fact, when it surveyed more than 200 randomly selected residents in the neighborhood door to door last summer, it found that 58 percent were somewhat to very satisfied to be living there, and 85 percent were willing to invest time as volunteers to improve the neighborhood and its image.

Rutland volunteers Jenifer Dufresne and Sheila Nicholes
canvas the Northwest neighborhood for the
community survey.
“If we had not participated in NeighborWorks’ Community Impact Measurement project by conducting the survey, we would not have had any data to show that the neighborhood has strengths as well,” says Biddle, adding that the research, which uses tools designed by the Success Measures initiative at NeighborWorks America, will be repeated in three years to track progress in the neighborhood over time. “Our experience has really proven the value of taking the time to assess community-level attitudes. The timing turned out to be ideal.”

But how do you capitalize on the good work you’re doing when the media are telling a different story? The New York Times article was widely shared on Facebook, with the mayor’s son even hearing about it while skiing in Colorado. Soon, reporters from media ranging from Fox News, to Rolling Stone, to Al Jazeera were calling. In addition, state-level officials are further highlighting the issues faced by the city; on March 17, Sen. Patrick Leahy held an unusual “field hearing” in Rutland focused on “Breaking the Cycle of Heroin and Opioid Addiction.”

Biddle and her colleagues are not alone. Many other organizations working in distressed neighborhoods have faced similar challenges. Here are some “lessons learned” from Biddle and her Rutland colleagues, as well as other community-development professionals who have survived to thrive after PR crises:

Shape your story in advance – with collective buy-in

 “The first instinct of people who are doing good work, such as the police department, is to talk about it. It’s human nature,” says Marcia Nedland from Fall Creek Consultants, who was retained in 2013 as part of a team charged with advising the city’s re-development agency on strategies for revitalization. “But it’s important to distinguish between your plan to fight crime and the image you want your community to have among potential homebuyers, for example. Stories in the media about your heroic efforts to catch drug dealers may make you feel good, but they will scare away people who are contemplating moving there.”

Paul Singh, senior manager with NeighborWorks America’s Stable Communities Initiative, agrees, saying his team advises organizations to separate “internal stories” from external ones. “Internally, you need to address deficiencies directly and celebrate the work that you are doing. But that is not necessarily what you talk about ‘outside the family.’ Externally, it’s important to promote your assets.”

To help nonprofits create strong brands for their communities and re-build market demand, the initiative launched a Neighborhood Marketing Program in 2012. Through the program, NeighborWorks America is helping 16 organizations across the country implement marketing strategies designed to bolster neighborhood strengths and counter negative perceptions. Seven to 10 more communities will be chosen in 2014.

Don’t repeat the negative

If adverse publicity does occur, you don’t always need to respond! “For many people, the first inclination after a story like the one in The New York Times is to respond just as publicly that ‘most Rutland residents don’t use heroin.’ But what people will remember is the reference to heroin – so you’ve just reminded them of what you want them to forget,” says Biddle. Her organization and the other members of the city's neighborhood-revitalization team (called Project VISION) agreed to turn down the requests flowing in for further interviews on the subject.

Of course, saying “no” to media interviews doesn’t mean not responding at all. Mark Dohan, executive director of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation (TCCDC) in Fitchburg, MA, recalls when a sensational murder occurred last summer in his town’s Elm Street neighborhood.

New logo for the Elm Street neighborhood, showing a tree with broad roots.
The new logo for the Elm Street
neighborhood in Fitchburg, MA.
“The area had been plagued by crime and foreclosures, but we were making good progress in building and selling new houses to reverse the blight in the neighborhood,” says Dohan, whose organization participates in the Neighborhood Marketing Program. “Then came this front-page news. We had to respond; after all, any death is a tragedy. But we decided to deal with facts on the ground, not in the media.”

To acknowledge the loss of human life and help the neighborhood heal, the TCCDC helped to organized a vigil that allowed residents to come together and restore a sense of connectedness. And in the fall, the TCCDC held its first neighborhood-wide open house, attracting an influx of real-estate agents and potential homebuyers. The new logo for the marketing program: “Elm Street: We’re Building a Neighborhood.”

“We went back to the media that covered the neighborhood in the wake of the murder, but after a little time had passed, and with new stories about what’s happening in our community,” says Dohan. “We are re-claiming what defines us.”

In the next blog post: two more lessons from the trenches of PR crises – taking back your story, and preventing disruptions from distracting your team from its work.