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Public Relations – Why Relocate America’s Ranking of Grand Rapids Matters

August 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Spotlight on G-Rap

Recently, ReclocateAmerica.com ranked Grand Rapids as #2 on its “Top Ten Places to Live” behind Austin, TX.  Way cool, right?

Apparently not.  Both before and after the publication, three pieces have been written about how Grand Rapids shouldn’t be seeking external validation at all:

Salient quotes from the three articles (in order):

“Despite the reality of all our advances, whether replications of another city or other ideas that are completely our own, maybe we need to stop trying to make people love us and simply learn to love ourselves a bit more. When we focus so hard on what the world thinks of us by jumping up and down in a childlike manner, maybe we are saying, ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me.'”
– Tommy Allen

“But I would suggest to Tommy, and to everyone else, that he not lose the thread he tripped over – the idea that maybe we need to start by pursuing contentment in our own eyes and judging ourselves by our own measures.  For every top 10 we chase, for every passing mention on meaningless morning TV we crave, we need to ask ourselves how we could have, should have, turned that effort inward.”
– Stad diPonzi

“Halfway through reading that, I came down with a serious case of List Fatigue. The news here is that we got named one of America’s top 100 cities and then enough visitors to the site pushed Grand Rapids to No. 2. Which is cool, if this is the kind of validation you seek. […] Grand Rapids’ placement on this particular list appears, more than anything, to be an expression of pride on the part of various community members. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But does Grand Rapids, as “diPonzi” suggests, suffer in general from a disproportionate need for outside attention?”
– Troy Reimink

I think they’re missing the point.  Lists like these have little to do with validating our egos – they’re all about stimulating discussion about quality of life and promoting economic development.  What the lists do is provide away to include our city’s name in the national dialog.  The (perhaps unfair) reality is that sort of thing matters a great deal.  It’s an important part of public relations.

As writers like Dan Gardner have pointed out – the research shows that human beings make very important decisions (like where to live) based on irrational and limited information or perceptions.  The news and discussion generated by “top ten” lists like this is just the kind of data floating through the ether that attaches itself to peoples’ perceptions and drives decision-making.

If you don’t talk about yourself (or encourage others to) – it’s probably not going to happen.  So as distasteful, slimy, and decidedly un-Midwestern as it may be – we need to promote ourselves.  Everyone (even cities) could use a little self-aggrandizement.

After all, what is SXSW if not the city of Austin saying “Look at me, look at me, look at me!”  … and it works.

There’s a great analog to this in Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize Competition: though it publishes “top __” lists – that isn’t the point.  The point is to inject a discussion of the arts into the public consciousness, and in so doing – help promote and encourage all artists in the process.

I shouldn’t have to lecture three guys with published opinion columns about the importance of self-promotion. :-}

No Truce, Newsweek – The Six One Six is Coming at You

May 27, 2011 2 comments

Newsweek Says Grand Rapids is Dying (While Circulation Plummets)

After declaring Grand Rapids, Michigan a “dying city,” Newsweek is now backing off the characterization after GR’s flashmob empresario Rob Bliss organized the world’s largest lipdub video in response to the charge.

Perhaps written up best by Gawker (“Dying Michigan City to Newsweek: Drop Dead”), the response boggled my mind:

“To the Grand Rapids crowd:

First off, we LOVE your YouTube LipDub. We’re big fans, and are inspired by your love of the city you call home.

But so you know what was up with the list you’re responding to, we want you to know it was done by a website called mainstreet.com—not by Newsweek (it was unfortunately picked up on the Newsweek web site as part of a content sharing deal)—and it uses a methodology that our current editorial team doesn’t endorse and wouldn’t have employed. It certainly doesn’t reflect our view of Grand Rapids.”

A couple of immediate concerns spring to mind:

  • Newsweek recycles content under its masthead?
  • Newsweek publishes analysis it doesn’t even stand behind?
Talk about the Lamestream Media.

Here’s my problem:  A Facebook status update is hardly as prominent as an article on Newsweek’s website.  Fairness demands that Newsweek publish a retraction of equal prominence.

As Grand Rapids (along with the entire state of Michigan) attempt to attract emerging industries to the state to diversify our economy (which suffered so greatly recently because decades of incompetent leadership allowed us to grow far too dependent on manufacturing) – publishing a characterization like this isn’t just an interesting diversion; it has real economic ramifications.

As I teach my Communication students: perception is extraordinarily powerful.

So my challenge to Newsweek still stands: let’s wait five years and see which institution better fits the adjective “dying.”  

It’s on.  Time to take yer beatin’ like a grown-up.

Dying Magazine Names Grand Rapids Dying City: Why Newsweek can Tongue-Bathe my Crotchular Region

January 25, 2011 2 comments

Newsweek Says Grand Rapids is Dying (While Circulation Plummets)

Newsweek just caused a flap by declaring Grand Rapids (viewed by many as a shining beacon of economic recovery in a depressed state) to be one of America’s top ten “dying cities” (“Americas Dying Cities: Cities With Bleak Futures Ahead”).  The basis for this assessment of the top ten dying cities is based on a scant two pieces of data:

  1. a population decline from 2000-2009
  2. a population decline for people under the age of 18

There are a lot of ways to rebut Newsweek’s deliberately inflammatory article, but here are just a few:

Limited Data: Basing a declaration of  a “dying” city based purely on population statistics is … stupid.  It ignores the variety of other measures that can be used to assess vitality.  How about median income, for starters?  Economic development?  Access to higher education?  Unemployment rate?  Using Newsweek’s very short-sighted measures, many flourishing European cities would be considered to be “dying” simply because people aren’t procreating enough.  Just look at the fastest-growing metro areas in the US.  More people doesn’t always = better.  More people create more congestion, they tend to lower the median income, contribute to traffic, and in many cases in the Southwest – they’re going to cause catastrophic shortages of fresh water.

Population Trends: Grand Rapids is in the latter stages of weathering a once-in-a-generation structural economic shift.  After the state of Michigan ignored the signs that banking heavily on an auto manufacturing economy was untenable, the dam finally burst and the state has been scrambling to diversify its economy (something it should have been doing since the 1970s).  The good news is that West Michigan has turned things around. The population losses happened in the early 2000s, and the city’s population is up from 1990.

Comparison:  Just as Newsweek would like its declining circulation to be considered in the context of a radically changing mass media environment that has seen content and readers move online faster than most print news enterprises can adjust business models to respond, Grand Rapids decline has been tiny compared to the declines in the rest of the state.  By comparison to the rest of the state, Grand Rapids is doing fantastically.

West Michigan has been tremendously successful at attracting investment from the healthcare, biological sciences, and alternative energy industries.  Cranes have dotted the skyline of the city for the past few years as gleaming new buildings have gone up.  Higher Education institutions have clamored to open up campuses downtown.  Internationally-ranked breweries are scrambling to expand to meet demand.

Let’s put the shoe on the other foot: how would Newsweek feel if I called it a “dying magazine?”  After all – its circulation numbers have been falling far more precipitously than the City of Grand Rapids’ population.

Unlike Newsweek, nobody’s putting Grand Rapids up for sale.

I’ve got a wager for Newsweek: let’s wait five years and see which institution better fits the adjective “dying.”