With Detroit’s plan to exit bankruptcy now approved by a federal judge, government officials, corporate executives, and academics are working to change the city’s narrative from one of industrial decline, racial tension, and crime to opportunity and youthful optimism.
Local communications leaders say the next six to nine months will be crucial to achieving that end, given that coverage from national and international media will be at its peak as the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history comes to an end.
Local PR executives are also pushing to create a single entity to coordinate and maximize media opportunities so reporters are actively pitched stories about the city’s rebirth.
William Nowling, a newly named senior partner at Finn Partners, who previously led communications for Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn D. Orr, says, "Detroit has an opportunity to present itself to a much larger national and international audience than it otherwise would have without the bankruptcy filing."
"News organizations, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal included, have committed substantial time and on-the-ground resources to Detroit," Nowling explains, adding that while journalists may be there to report on the bankruptcy, "then they look at what else is going on."
"We can tell them the story that Detroit is open for business and how it is moving forward," he adds. "There is a story arc to Detroit that is much bigger than bankruptcy."
Citing Finn Partners’ own investment in the city, he notes that the firm’s Detroit outpost has 10 staffers but plans more hires in the next quarter. The office’s biggest client is Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Nowling says the firm is fielding calls and new business pitches from prospective clients locally and outside the state.
Telling a renaissance story for the city
Detroit’s message of rebirth is coming from business leaders, corporations, and industry associations, but to a lesser extent from government branches. Multiple sources say the municipality pulled back on communications efforts about revitalization in the past 16 months because of the bankruptcy proceedings, but those may ramp up again once it adjusts to a new budget.
Representatives from the city of Detroit did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Jarrod Agen, director of communications for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R), says that at the state level, "a big part of the push is to get startups and tech companies investing here. They will be valuable in helping Detroit move forward."
"A big issue in the past – not just in Detroit but all of Michigan – was the dependency on the automotive industry," Agen adds. "But if we have a booming tech industry that matches our strong manufacturing one, then if one does suffer a downturn, it won’t have as devastating an impact on the region’s economy."
While the state has not launched a major campaign for Detroit, he says it is coordinating with the city and has supported media relations efforts organized by the private sector and organizations to promote the Motor City. That includes Snyder’s September 18 appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
The governor also appeared at a three-day conference put on by Crain’s Detroit Business, called the Detroit Homecoming, which featured a keynote from business mogul Warren Buffett. The event brought more than 150 notable expats back to the city.
Agen says Snyder will take his open-for-business message internationally, starting next week with a trade mission to China.
"Previously, the big question we would get asked was, ‘What’s going to happen in Detroit?’ This is the first time we really can go out and talk about how there is a clear path for the city to get on financially sound ground now that the plan of adjustment has been approved," Agen explains. "We will be doing a lot more [out-of-state] outreach now."
Other major stakeholders include the city’s business community, led by Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, who has become one of its best-known evangelists. He purchased and renovated several downtown buildings and funds the website Opportunity Detroit, which highlights employment opportunities.
He has also been interviewed dozens of times about the city, including on the Morning Joe special.
Other privately funded ventures include Detroit Driven, which spotlights local entrepreneurs on its website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page. Its homepage features a 90-second spot promoting the city’s rebirth.
But would the Motor City benefit from a large-scale, sustained rebranding effort? Those interviewed don’t believe so – at least not yet.
"We can’t say, ‘Here is the brand of Detroit, what a great place,’ because there are so many examples right now of where the city falls short," points out Nowling. "But we can communicate its complexity and its grittiness in the face of adversity. And I believe that is the responsibility of everyone to communicate, from government to businesses."
‘Brand ownership’ opportunities
Still, he says that with many PR efforts taking place, the city would benefit from "one clearing house – someone who could have ownership of the brand, for lack of a better word, whether that is the mayor’s office, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, or the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau."
He contends this would help "stories about the rise and resurgence of Detroit" reach as many media outlets as possible.
Wayne State University has organized an initiative called PR for Detroit, with the goal of better coordinating media opportunities. The effort has brought together about 60 leaders from agencies, government, foundations, and the auto industry, as well as other corporate sectors. Representatives from General Motors, Chrysler, and Airfoil are among the volunteers.
PR for Detroit aims to add some synergy to different comms efforts, explains Matt Seeger, dean of Wayne State’s College of Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts and a professor of communications.
"We want to be a neutral place for people to informally talk about the issues, because in any PR community, there is a great deal of competition," he says. "But if we are going to build a different narrative about Detroit, the first thing we need to do is share and tell different stories about ourselves, of renewal, innovation, youth, and opportunity."
PR for Detroit will also try to maximize coverage of local events such as the North American International Auto Show, which will take place from January 12-25.
"That will be a great opportunity to encourage the media to learn more about the resurrection of Detroit beyond the auto industry," explains Seeger, "and will be an interesting target for us."
Janet Tyler, the former co-CEO of Airfoil, says a more coordinated PR approach would broaden voices in the media about Detroit’s revitalization. To date, coverage has largely focused on Dan Gilbert, and while he is a great story, coverage of everyday people who have carved out exciting new careers could inspire others to return to or invest in the city, she contends.
"Entrepreneurs want to be around other entrepreneurs," Tyler says. "When Detroit can figure out how to capitalize on that and really capture the momentum around its entrepreneurial ecosystem, that is when I feel like the city will really thrive."