Detroit Bankruptcy Highlights PR and Media Reality

DetroitLast week’s filing of Chapter 9 Bankruptcy by the City of Detroit helps prove something we frequently tell clients. It’s something that takes time to understand. The fact is that news consumers don’t often pay attention to the details you want them to, which is one of the reasons why it takes so long to shape reputation via the media and takes even longer to change reputation.

On Friday, the day after the filing, I traveled to New York City for a long-ago planned trip. There, everywhere I went, when those I would meet would find out where I live and what I do for a living, they wanted to talk about what they thought they know about the new filing. Also, I stayed in touch via social media, primarily Twitter, where opinions flew all day long.

First, it was obvious how much the average news consumer didn’t grasp about the initial reports. The proper noun “Detroit” is used in so many different ways, conversationally, that it seemed hard for many to understand what happened. “Detroit” is used to name the entire Metro Area of more than 4 million people. “Detroit” is used to name the entire U.S. automobile industry. Neither of those “Detroit’s” filed bankruptcy. It was, in fact, just the city government in the actual City of Detroit. I even heard someone in public say “The State of Michigan declared bankruptcy.”

Also clear was how a moment like this can crystallize perception. As I toured one of the nation’s top broadcast newsrooms, a producer asked me what it was like to own a business “in Detroit.” I let her know that, “right now it is the most fun that I’ve had in business in the ares in years.” Before I could explain about all of the momentum underway, she gave me a look as if I had told her that I am the reigning Heavyweight Champion of the World. When I tried to explain that things are going better than they have in a long time, with the city government lagging far behind, she said “it was nice meeting you” and picked up the phone. She just didn’t want to believe it.

The last few years in and around Detroit have been a microcosm of many PR campaigns – three steps forward, two steps back. It all underscores one of the fundamentals of what we do – communicate your facts and messages to your audiences over and over again, at every opportunity, over the long-term, making progress along the way. As you go through it, it’s sometimes frustrating to see what Simon and Garfunkel sang about play out in real life: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”