Imagine this client meeting at a public relations agency: you are presented with a city in financial turmoil. They have wide swaths of the city given over to rubble and wild animals. A high percentage of the citizens are functionally illiterate.
The street lights don’t work, you can drive for miles without seeing another human, the water mains are in disrepair, the cops come when they can find the time. The city was built on a dying industrial base, and a former mayor is now in prison for financial malfeasance. Foreigners take city tours mostly to see the ruins from the mid-20th Century.
Some of the best minds in the country decided that bankruptcy was the only recourse to simply nuking the city (not that anyone would notice). Now they debate whether to sell off the city’s utilities, zoo animals, and art work.
Sounds like an impossible task for any public relations firm. But into the breach they ride, trying to spin straw into gold for mass consumption. And they are finding outlets that will swallow a good news story — hook, line and sinker.
There’s a new novel, “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” whose title is taken from a 1970s effort at spin doctoring. The concept of the book: the hero is forced to answer a simple question, if you want to go home again, what do you do if home is Detroit?
The broad answer to that question seems to be talking loudly over the negative news, judging from a random web sampling. Keep in mind that most of what you read online, aside from breaking news about fires and investigative pieces, is usually “suggested” by a public relations firm, or spun by someone with a vested interest in positive news. Thus, we see green shoots of positive news emerge, some from unlikely outlets, most with a somewhat strange view of reality.
Nice Things in the News
The new Whole Foods in Detroit, a grand experiment on bringing expensive groceries to those who can least afford it, is down with the good news concept, as would be expected from its substantial investment in making things work in the inner city.
“We enjoy being a part of the Detroit community and all the wonderful things that are happening in the City of Detroit,” says the store’s web site. Specifics on those wonderful things — outside of the lifestyle education classes at Whole Foods — are left to your imagination.
MSN eagerly reported on a Realtor.com analysis that says Detroit is leading the housing market rebound, as its year-over-year prices are 44.3% above where they were in the third quarter of 2012. Of course, that’s like saying the zombie apocalypse isn’t all bad — at least it evened out the income inequality in the land.
Even FOX News, that nattering nabob of negativity, jumped on the bandwagon. They claim that Detroit might be a comeback story for the ages. Of course, that notion relies on a whole lot of wishful thinking on what might happen to make that reality.
Then there are the blogs and social media, who rely on a lot of PR spin. There’s the ironically named “Detroit Unspun,” which barks on command at any positive news emerging. There’s also “Detroit Lives,” which reserves its own category for “good news.” And there’s even a Twitter feed, “@goodnewsdetroit,” which touts such important breaking developments as a new restaurant at the airport.
Of course, this concept can be taken a tad too far. Environmental Health News reports cases of lead poisoning among children is down 70% in the last decade.
Too bad about the remaining 30%. But I guess bringing that up would only make the city look bad.