Communicating in a hurricane: the conversation in Detroit

As Detroit works its way through the bankruptcy process, many of those most concerned about the city are asking, "How should we rebrand Detroit?"

As Detroit works its way through the bankruptcy process, many of those most concerned about the city are asking, “How should we rebrand Detroit?” and “how do we convince people and businesses to return to the city?”

I believe such questions fail to appreciate both the magnitude of the issues confronting Detroit at this moment and the stage of crisis that we're in after decades of governmental mismanagement and deficit spending.

Asking right now how we should rebrand Detroit is akin to huddling in the New Orleans convention center on August 29, 2005, as Katrina's floods and winds roar around us and asking how we should rebrand that city. It's like climbing through the rubble of Haiti as the January 12, 2010, earthquake rumbles across the landscape and asking how to rebrand Port-au-Prince.

Detroit at this moment is in the midst of a mighty battering, an unnatural disaster with destruction and impact as extensive as any other city its size has sustained. Amid this hurricane of problems, it's too early to start rebranding, because first we must rebuild Detroit into a viable city with a strong foundation and future. Brands are built, not proclaimed, and the next Detroit brand must be built on the new foundations that are about to be set in place by the bankruptcy and all that it engenders.

Successful branding will follow a successful bankruptcy. The leaders of the recovery effort — Gov. Rick Snyder, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, and Mayor Dave Bing — have set out on the right foot. They have done a great job of communicating the bad news; now they — and we — need to focus on how to communicate the good news embedded in the rebuilding effort.

The most important thing that public relations professionals can do at this point is to ensure that the best possible communications continue through this long process. What I mean by “the best possible communications” are clear, factual communications that are relevant to the hundreds of thousands of stakeholders in the process, including tens of thousands of municipal retirees concerned about their pensions, 100,000 of the city's creditors concerned about their own viability, and 700,000 residents concerned about survival.

Many of these residents are confronting disasters far worse than darkened streetlights. Like storm refugees in New Orleans, large numbers have no food, and their living conditions may be horrendous. How will bankruptcy affect them? It's our job as communicators to help lead this conversation, to let citizens learn the answers to life-or-death questions that plague them every morning and every night.

We have heard our leaders say, “Detroit deserves better; Detroiters deserve better.” As communicators, we need to explain what that means, to residents, to school children, to businesses, and to visitors. Exactly how will Detroit be better as we emerge from the bankruptcy process? That's a question we can't answer yet, but it should be at the top of our list as we move forward in communicating with the city's constituencies.

Another message we should affirm is that voters and potential candidates for city offices should not be discouraged by the process. While an emergency manager is making all the big decisions currently, when Detroit emerges from bankruptcy, the city will have an urgent need for strong leadership. Communicators have a responsibility to keep civic-minded individuals engaged and prepare them to take action once the next Detroit takes shape.

Finally, city leaders must adopt 21st century communications channels, using social and digital media extensively. They must reinvent the way they're communicating, getting good news out instantly as it happens.

Other major cities around the nation — and the federal government — are watching Detroit to see and learn from our experience. Communicators have an obligation to sculpt the Detroit that is waiting to be reformed and re-formed. It's our job to keep our eyes and minds open to help enlighten and inspire those who are building the next Detroit.

Lisa Vallee-Smith is co-CEO of Airfoil.

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