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Stockton, Detroit, Cleveland: Changing a city’s image is an uphill battle

The city first distinguished itself for a national audience several years ago, with a foreclosure rate that remains among the highest in the nation. Forbes magazine twice rated Stockton America’s most miserable city, and that was before it filed for bankruptcy protection and recorded a record number of homicides last year.

The coverage was unflattering, and pride was hurt.

So, shortly before Spurlock arrived in this inland port city of nearly 300,000 people, a group of business leaders arranged with a political consultant in Sacramento to monitor coverage of Stockton and try to improve it.

The effort involves scrutinizing reporters’ itineraries and steering them toward more favorable events and institutions. It is an exercise in crisis communications writ large, done with a belief — shared by boosters in such places as Cleveland and Detroit — that a city’s sunken image can be repaired.

“The impression that was coming across was one of a defeated city, and you know, the coverage, especially from outside of the area, was one of helplessness,” said the consultant, Roger Salazar, whose experience ranges from the Clinton White House to a childhood in nearby Lodi (where “things got bad and things got worse” in one Creedence Clearwater Revival song). “We’re going to punch back and we’re going to make sure that folks know that this is a resilient community and a proud community that cares about where we’re going.”

Nearly every American city tries to nurture its reputation, mostly through chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus and often in conjunction with tourism promotion. The effect of the effort, which supports a small industry of tourism experts and public relations professionals, is difficult to measure, and some practitioners and observers dismiss any effort to influence coverage directly.

“People who look at these things usually see them as you’re trying to wallpaper over a hole in the wall,” said Gary Pettey, an associate professor of communication at Cleveland State University. “They’re desperation, more than anything else.”

Cleveland became notorious for its pollution when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in the 1960s. A decade later, the city defaulted on its debts. A campaign to convince outsiders that “Cleveland’s a Plum,” Pettey said, was less enduring than one more organic alternative, “The Mistake by the Lake.”

The founders of Stockton Forward, the group promoting Stockton, include the presidents of University of the Pacific and Bank of Stockton, the Food 4 Less grocery chain, and two developers, Fritz Grupe and Dea Spanos Berberian, of A.G. Spanos Cos. They are concerned, among other things, about the impact relentless negativity may have on business.

“There’s no question about it: Every time there’s a crime committed, it gets blown up in the newspaper,” said Doug Eberhardt, the Bank of Stockton’s president and chief executive officer.

Bob Gutierrez, director of government affairs for Food 4 Less, said that after Stockton became the nation’s largest city to seek bankruptcy protection, “A bunch of us got together and started talking and we thought, ‘You know, how are we going to get the community organized to try to basically get people to not feel essentially horrible about the situation.’ “

In Detroit, where a predominant image is that of urban ruin, an effort to turn the city’s downtown into an information technology center, “Outsource to Detroit,” has gained some positive attention.

“Kind of the beauty of the PR campaign is there is the third-party credibility in a respected news source that is saying positive things, rather than an ad that’s bought and paid for that doesn’t have that third-party credibility,” said Don Tanner, a consultant involved in the campaign.

However, Tanner said, “There has to be something of interest there. . If you want coverage on a wide national scale, you have to have some things of interest to that larger audience.”

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