Booker changes the perception of Newark

The new mayor and his comms team have helped to turn around the once 'failing' city's appearance

Less than two weeks ago, the communications team for Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker (D) was thrown into crisis mode when an unknown toxin caused the evacuation of residents from one of the city's buildings. According to news reports, about 40 people were hospitalized.

The building evacuation was an immediate problem for a city - the largest in the state - that has a number of long-term issues, including public safety and economic development.

More generally, the city had begun to symbolize the decay of American cities led by corrupt politicians. Newark's previous mayor, Sharpe James, was recently convicted on conspiracy and fraud charges, and has been sentenced to 27 months in prison.

The arrival of the 39-year-old Booker as mayor provided an opportunity for change, according to his office's communications director, Desiree Peterkin Bell. Since Booker took office two years ago, he has worked to build out its communications machinery so that when a problem arises, like the building evacuation, the mayor's office is able to quickly brief state and federal officials, as well organize the press to cover the story with little notice.

"Under this administration, we've basically redefined how government interacts with people," Bell says. "We want people to know that Newark is a great place to live, work, and visit... and invest. I've committed to the mayor that, if we're going to get our message out, we're going to engage as many outlets as possible."

Previously, much of the communications office's work was fielding inquiries from constituents, but the constituent services department handles that now. Instead, Bell and her team, including press secretary Esmeralda Diaz Cameron, manage inquiries from national and local media that have taken a frenzied interest in Newark and its mayor.

Since assuming office, top-tier outlets like The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times have written about Booker. The communications team has also been diligent in its efforts with the single local newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger. If Newark was previously viewed as a quintessential "failed" city, now it's being held up as an example of potential urban renewal.

"The national media tends to focus on how Newark is going to epitomize the transformation of an urban city,"  Bell says.

However, not all coverage of late has been good. In the case of a July 2008 Esquire article, Booker and his communications team expressed outrage at a portrayal of the city that they felt focused only on the challenges the city faced, not its successes. Overall, though, Booker is well aware of his media following and believes it can be used to the benefit of the city.

"Cities all around America try to leverage media attention and public interest to achieve specific goals," Booker tells PRWeek. "I don't think we're doing anything different. Nurturing celebrity for celebrity's sake is not productive to what we're trying to achieve. As other elements of my administration work, it's critical that our residents are aware of what's going on, know the changes we're trying to make, and participate. Whether the attention comes to me or other individual action, the focus must always be toward that goal of empowering the city."

Besides using media outlets, the administration also aims to speak directly with residents through a newly launched newsletter, as well as a municipal TV station that will launch in September. Booker also opens his doors to residents, giving them the opportunity to speak with him personally.

"It might be hard to explain to someone who has never really seen CNN in front of City Hall how that's helpful for them," Peterkin Bell says. "Our hope is that this will help make the residents feel proud of where they come from and where they are. It helps businesses want to take a look at Newark again or for the first time, and it helps stakeholders talk about Newark in a new and different way."

Helping residents understand the transition their city is in is part of what Bell considers the office's biggest challenge: managing expectations.

“[People] expect if they didn't have a job yesterday, because there's [another] mayor, they're going to have a job tomorrow,” she says. “A lot of that is keeping the discourse open and having realistic goals.”

The office is eager to point out some of the strides that the administration has already made. According to Bell, murders have dropped 40%, and shootings, about 16% since Booker took office. Businesses like Standard Chartered Bank, which has offices internationally, have set up shop in Newark. And there are policy initiatives, like a $40 million park project, to enhance the city.

Still, the office also acknowledges that more can still be done. Last August, Newark made headlines when three college students were slain execution-style at a local playground. A fourth young woman was shot but survived.

“At a time when cities often become fractured and begin to point blame, that was a time when the entire city came together,” says Bell. “And that was a great opportunity for all the national media that had swarmed our town to see that. The Newarkers, from residents on up, were really focused on making sure this case was close.”

Ultimately, six suspects were apprehended, three of them juveniles. They're in jail awaiting trial.
Issues with public safety have always been concerns for the nation's cities. However, for Newark, this issue, and other problems classified as “urban blight”, are tied into the always-tense issue of race. Newark has a large African-American and Latino population, but, as far as the administration is concerned, race and the city's problems have little to do with one another.

“There is so much rich culture here because of the diversity of the city's make up,” says Bell. “I refuse to fall into the trap of because you're in a black and Latino city, that you're plagued with all these black and Latino problems. I look at other cities—at foreclosures or public safety—[these are] American urban city problems.”

Bringing constituents into the fold has made the mandate for cohesive external and internal communications all the more pressing. Bell is working to bring various departments out of their silos to work together to continue to solve the city's problems. And the mayor's office will continue to leverage the media and mass interest to get the word out that Newark's profile is on the rise.

“We still have a ways to go in order to change perceptions of the city within and without,” says Booker. “We're uncompromising in the power of the city of Newark.”

At A Glance

Organization: Office of the Mayor, City of Newark, NJ

Cory A. Booker

Newark, NJ

Key trade titles:
Star-Ledger of New Jersey (Newark), The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, major broadcast networks, USA Today, The Economist

Budget: $1,213,590 for 2008

Communications team:
Desiree Peterkin Bell, communications director; Esmeralda Diaz Cameron, press secretary; Anne Torres, chief of staff; Janet Dickerson, press information officer; Brenda Jones, press information officer; David Lippman, press information officer; Kimberly DeHaarte, executive assistant

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