Communicating a comeback: Cleveland institutions bask in convention spotlight

Organizations including the Cleveland Clinic and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are taking advantage of an influx of influential visitors to tell their stories, and that of their host city, while trying to stay above the political fray.

Cleveland is on a roll, and it’s taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime media opportunity to let the world know it.

The city’s municipal and civic institutions have been reaching out to the biggest gathering of journalists in the world outside of the Summer Olympic Games -- an estimated 15,000 -- to talk up not only themselves, but also the greater Cleveland comeback story.

The Forest City’s turn in the spotlight actually began a month ago, when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers upset the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA Finals, bringing the title-starved city its first sports championship in five decades and creating a city-wide outpouring of joy that’s still palpable.

Three days later, the city hosted 1.3 million spectators for the championship parade, which many looked at as a security test run for the convention. Only a handful of arrests were reported.

Fast forward one month. With legions of journalists in town this week for the Republican National Convention, civic institutions are taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime media opportunity. And their research shows that once people experience Cleveland for themselves, they like it.

"We’re trying to change the narrative about Cleveland," says Emily Lauer, who is doing double-duty as director of communications and PR for Destination Cleveland and the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee. "Our research shows a few things. If you’re generation X or a boomer, and you haven’t been here, you probably don’t have an accurate impression of Cleveland. If you have been here in the past five-to-seven years, your preconceived notions probably changed once you were here."  

The group began planning its strategy for the convention nearly 18 months ago, then moved into another gear at the one-year-to-go mark. It has focused on what Lauer calls "high-value targets," or national media with a wide reach. Dozens of story ideas were pitched to media. It also developed a six-part promotional video series.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which is hosting 40 events during the convention’s four days, is making itself a staging ground for media broadcasts. Its staff set up eight locations within its glass pyramid-like structure where TV journalists could easily set up equipment and broadcast, all within feet of items like Elvis Presley’s Army uniform or the guitar Jimi Hendrix used to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock.

"We knew we were going to have to be really nimble with a lot of people who just show up and so we have staged places where people can come in quickly," explains Todd Mesek, VP of communications and marketing at the institution. "If a camera crew comes in, there are lights, visuals, and assets to support it. It makes it possible to handle a really high volume of media."

The Hall of Fame is also partnering with Snapchat, which was set to bring influencers inside its walls on Thursday as part of the social media blitz accompanying the event.

The Cleveland Clinic is using an aggressive media relations plan to tell its story to the unprecedented number of journalists in town. It set up teams at its main campus and the Quicken Arena, as well as the Global Center for Health Innovation, which is just feet from Cleveland’s Huntington Convention Center and several hotels where campaign and delegate heavies are staying for the week.

Part of its plan is old fashioned media outreach, targeting TV networks in the weeks before their staffers got to Cleveland, introducing themselves to attendees, and getting coffee with reporters. CEO Toby Cosgrove is participating in a number of events, both sponsored and unsponsored, with key legislators. In the months before the convention, Cleveland Clinic also partnered with other regional healthcare institutions to develop a PSA using children to spread a simple message: be nice to each other during the convention.

"What we’re trying to do and what our CEO wants to see is to get as much media exposure for the Cleveland Clinic as possible, talking about all things healthcare," says Eileen Sheil, executive director of corporate communications at the Cleveland Clinic. "There’s a lot of attention to healthcare right now for both the Democrats and the Republicans, so we work really hard to stay politically neutral."

Staying above the fray is a common refrain among civic institutions. Their city may be full of Republicans, but most groups aren't changing their message to play to the crowd.

"We’ve worked really hard [to stay politically neutral], but we’ve also had a lot of practice over the past seven years, leading up to the Affordable Care Act and the last six years that it’s been law," explains Sheil. "When [Cosgrove] responds to things that are politically loaded, he knows what to say."

Although popular music is famously left-leaning, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was able to dig up some conservative favorites for its Rock, Power, & Politics exhibit, such as memorabilia related to the Vietnam War anthem "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

While businesses are avoiding mud-slinging, there is some disagreement about whether Republican nominee Donald Trump’s history-making stay in town is good for the city. Some say the identity of the candidate simply does not change their goals, while others believe the media fascination with Trump’s outspoken nature and celebrity status benefits them, despite his contentious statements about Mexican immigrants and other groups.

"Fifteen thousand [covering the convention makes this] the second-largest media-credentialed event in the world, behind the Olympics," notes Lauer. "I think the media attention on this convention is actually benefitting us because of the political situation. Everyone wanted to be here. We’re still getting credential requests."

However, Trump’s presence is having an effect on corporate sponsorship. Companies that backed the 2012 convention in Tampa, Florida, but declined to do so this year include Ford Motor, JP Morgan Chase, and UPS, according to Bloomberg.

Lizanne Sadlier, SVP at public affairs firm Vox Global, notes that companies that sponsor one party’s marquee event usually have agreements in place with the other, as well. However, she noticed more pressure than usual this year on brands to drop sponsorship of the GOP Convention due to Trump.

Controversial or not, the city is set to reap an impressive financial windfall from the convention. Estimates have placed the amount of expected visitor spending at $200 million to $250 million. Lauer declines to put a monetary value on earned media, but says the visitor bureau’s media hits speak for themselves.

"In terms of the value of the media coverage, I can’t put a dollar sign on it," she says. "We had a seven-minute piece on CBS This Morning on Sunday and a five-minute piece on CBS This Morning on Monday. You just can’t buy this type of media coverage."

Cleveland institutions are also expressing confidence in the ability of law-enforcement personnel, an estimated 5,000 of which are in town from various states, to maintain a peaceful environment amid a crush of convention attendees and protesters.

"I think we’re feeling much more calm and confident. There was a point where I was worried about this team being downtown, and we were trying to get a feel for how many people were there and what the crowds were like," says Sheil. "It’s good, it’s positive, and it’s exciting to be downtown. I want to walk the streets and see what’s going on."  

Why Cleveland?
When the northeastern Ohio city was picked to host the convention two years ago, the political reason was obvious: it’s in a critical swing state and only an hour west of another, Pennsylvania. The economic rationale was murkier. After all, Cleveland’s image to many Americans is strictly post-industrial Rust Belt. Some remember when the city declared bankruptcy in 1978, its more recent foreclosure crisis, or worst of all, when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969.

Economic development group Team NEO began explaining to the media what the city would bring to the table shortly after it won the convention, taking a lesson from other host cities that regretted not starting sooner, says Rick Batyko, SVP of marketing, communications, and development at the organization.

The group, which represents cities in the northeastern Ohio region that includes Akron and Canton, targeted business press in trips to New York, Washington, and London, and told the story of Cleveland’s strength in healthcare and energy, as well as its status as a destination for well-educated millennials. It took advantage of the wonkier part of the convention, the rules committee meetings and other procedural events that occurred last week, to supply journalists with daily releases and other materials. Cleveland-based agency Dix & Eaton is working with Team NEO, as well as other civic groups.

"This was an opportunity for Cleveland to take a political story and make it into an economic story," Batyko explains.

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