Friday, April 27, 2001

Public relations experts say city image is fixable




By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Public relations experts gathered in Cincinnati for a regional conference Thursday said the city's image — tarnished by riots two weeks ago — can be restored if civic leaders are willing to enact concrete measures to address its problems.

        Cincinnati's wholesome reputation has been sullied by national and international media coverage, portraying the city as powder keg of racial tension.

        The riots and a citywide curfew spurred by the April 7 police shooting of an unarmed black man have branded Cincinnati for some as a dangerous place, capable of exploding in violent protest at any time.

        But the experts said action by city leaders to solve those problems would put the city in a national leadership role.

        “Once that happens, there's your story,” said Kristen Trenaman, corporate communications manager for Humana Inc. in Louisville. “The national spotlight is still on Cincinnati; and if you get all sides together coming up with solutions, that will result in positive media coverage on a national scale.”

        Ms. Trenaman was among about 100 industry professionals attending a luncheon Thursday at the Omni Netherland Plaza hotel in downtown Cincinnati.

        The luncheon occurred on the first day of a two-day conference hosted by the Cincinnati Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

        David Gergen, the luncheon's keynote speaker, professor of public service and formal presidential adviser, said Cincinnati's reputation has been damaged, but not irretrievably.

        “The reason I think it was such a big story is that it was such a big surprise,” Mr. Gergen said. “I've always regarded Cincinnati as a well-run, attractive place to live. (But) a lot of people are saying, "Wow, we didn't understand there was a cauldron boiling beneath the surface.'”

        Most of the public relations experts attending the conference agreed that issues of race relations and questions of police misconduct are not confined to Cincinnati.

        But the city is in a unique position, they said, to be seen as a national leader in solving such problems.

        That will require clear and tangible evidence that city leaders are working in harmony with minority communities to get to the root of the problems that have hurt the city's image, said Robert Chappell of Chappell Public Relations in Dayton, Ohio.

        Mr. Chappell — who has an extensive background in crisis management, including representing the former Charter Oak Financial Corp. in Cincinnati during its savings-and-loan debacle in the mid-1980s — said he thinks Cincinnati has taken the first step toward its image recovery.

        But it can't stop there.

        “You have to communicate openly and tell people what you're going to do to fix the problem and how you're going to do it,” Mr. Chappell said. “But you can't just talk about it. You've got to address the problem or it's going to come back.”

        Mr. Chappell lauded Mayor Luken for acknowledging the city's racial problems and troubled police community relations in Cincinnati and on national TV.

        But he said the one thing he hasn't seen or heard from city officials is the substance that will form solutions to the problems.

        “I haven't seen where the next step is being undertaken; the what-we're-going-to-do, and how-we're-going-to-address-it step,” Mr. Chappell said.

        Barbara Paynter said no matter how tempting it might sound, Cincinnati city officials can't simply ignore the city's problems and hope they will go away.

        “You can't pretend it didn't happen,” said Ms. Paynter, vice president of Edward Howard & Co. in Akron. “Right now, Cincinnati has (a bad) image. I have a friend who was bringing her daughter here to visit the University of Cincinnati, and she was worried about whether it was safe to come to Cincinnati for that.”

        Ms. Paynter, who specializes in damage control for clients involved in environmental mishaps, said the Queen City is on the hot seat and could be in danger of crumbling if the city does not act in some tangible way to resolve the issues.

        She said the key to averting further civil unrest and improving the city's image will be a concerted effort among all groups involved — police, city officials and black community leaders — to bridge the communications gap that probably led to the problems in the first place.

        “You can't solve the problems unless you know what the problems are,” Ms. Paynter said. “From the outside, it appears that the communications between community leaders, the police force and the residents was not strong enough that anyone felt they could knock on someone's door and say, "We have a problem.'”

Archive of reports on the riots and their aftermath



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- Public relations experts say city image is fixable
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