Michael D. Moberly November 25, 2014 ‘A long form blog where attention span really matters’!
A St. Louisan’s perspective about St. Louis’ reputation!
The events of August and November, 2014 have long surpassed merely being a public relations issue which can be remediated and eventually dismissed through boastful and ‘chest thumping’ rhetoric. The events have now materialized as full blown reputation risks that will be long lasting, costly, and perhaps irreversible. Perhaps that is the only path to influence policy makers and/or business management teams to first ‘listen’ to citizens or consumers and engage in serious, necessary, and hopefully permanent change!
You pick the city and I’m confident you will find its reputation evolves not from a single asset, rather from an array of predominantly intangible (non-physical) assets which collectively meld together to intellectually and emotionally influence – distinguish our memories, experiences, and feelings that influence residents, visitors, or consumers favorably or unfavorably. Remember the adage, ‘first impressions last a lifetime’.
In other words, a cities reputation is embedded with many different intangible assets, some etched firmly in history, that is, they may flow from long held practices which have become institutionalized or emerge from single or multiple events, acts or behaviors, perhaps in concert that can alter (favorably, unfavorably) one’s previous sentiments or memories.
St. Louis city and St. Louis County, unlike its downriver cousin New Orleans’s, possesses an array of intangible assets upon which its reputation has firmly been laid and continues to be assembled. Arguably, New Orleans’s reputation will forever be rooted in two intangible assets, three property-based assets that deliver many intangibles, and one horrific weather event, i.e., Cajun cuisine and music, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, the ‘lower 9th ward’, and hurricane Katrina. On the other hand, St. Louis’ and St. Louis County’s racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity are embedded intangibles, more so than designated pieces of real estate, a single cuisine, or it’s newly polished steel structure along the river.
Now, many in this city are resurrecting their memories and veiled sentiments or endeavoring to add their heartfelt voices into the milieu of intangible assets that flow from institutionalized practices which, in some instances, have become documentable injustices. The latter, where and when it exists, has been, by most any objective assessment, negligently tolerated so long as ‘it’s not in my neighborhood’.
There is an important, but often overlooked component to intangible assets, particularly our memories or experiences. If generationally repeated, intangibles are apt to accumulate and fester, as they have in numerous of the 90+ municipalities that comprise St. Louis County, particularly the north city-county real estate which the national and international media do not distinguish, nor perhaps should they. So, what transpired in Ferguson, Missouri in August, 2014 also transpired in the south, east, and west neighborhoods of St. Louis City and St. Louis County.
But, whether it’s a company or a city, a reputation will inevitably lie in interwoven collections of intangible assets which individuals and/or entities do play and have a role as do tragic events. It is here we begin to see some commonalities between reputations’ of cities be they St. Louis or companies like GM, Takata, and BP. In the latter, not unlike the former, we know there were years of culturally embedded neglect and poor, if non-existent mismanagement and turning the proverbial, convenient, and expedient ‘blind eye’, i.e., a culture for doing so!
These culturally institutionalized practices that festered were absent just, sincere, and impartial oversight which we know represent the key factors in the materialization of reputation risks, but not merely emotional rhetoric padded with offers for ‘beginning a conversation’ which frequently translates as quick fixes may on the way, but unfortunately, seldom do they permanently reach the emotionally embedded roots of the complex generational challenges before us.
Individuals and organizations who want to and believe they can make a difference and alter which intangible assets are dominant are also obliged to reflect on how they conceive their strategy to achieve change, i.e., as a conventional ‘public relations’ issue, or a city-county wide reputation risk that continues to adversely affect all citizens of the city and county. Let’s be clear, should anyone elect to interpret/conceive the challenge as the latter, that is a fresh coat of paint can be applied to conceal long standing structural flaws and weaknesses, should continue reading.
Perhaps, one distinction between a public relations issue (problem) and a materialized reputation risk for a county, city, or company for that matter, is the time frame in which a challenge either can and/or will ‘fester and/or exacerbate’ among its residents, consumers, and stakeholders until someone, often a previously voiceless individual, group, or whistleblower effectively articulates the issue and its underliers and is a force to execute the necessary changes. Seldom in my experience in elevating awareness among company decision makers about their reputation risks, are those risks difficult to identify and reveal. The difficulty, as a consultant, comes in reaching agreement they exist and consensus about strategies to achieve permanent change and mitigate the probability for relapse.
But, for government institutions and their leaders who are unaccustomed to listening or trying to understand underliers, to be sure, as a well known individual once suggested and I paraphrase, ‘stupidity occurs when one continues to do the same over and over while expecting different outcomes’. In the circumstance before us, reputation risk to St. Louis city and county has indeed materialized largely because well intended organizations and individuals have continued doing the same thing, but with little or no expectation or hope that change would be imminent.
Using ‘consumer – resident festering time’ as a metric for distinguishing challenge resolution in a public relations context vs. a reputation risk context assumes the players share the capability to genuinely assess – distinguish public relations issues for their near term gravity and criticality, i.e.,
- through a lens exclusive of the lens of consumers, visitors, prospective investors, and other would be (future) stakeholders, and
- possess a clear understanding of the various intangible assets which collectively comprise a company or city’s reputation.
Exacerbating problem resolution further is another reality, which is, the various voices and decision makers’ inclination to calculate the already adverse affects in quarterly or quick fix contexts. Let’s think about that. Does anyone believe the challenges that enveloped GM, Takata, or BP fall into a ‘quick fix’ category? I don’t believe so. Quick fixes in companies, and I suspect, cities as well, are seldom permanent, or really very useful unless and/or until there is a strong commitment to ‘listening’ and changing the underlying culture that tolerated and permeated the challenge in the first place. Through my lens, for companies anyway, calculating adverse affects of materialized reputation risks in quarterly – quick fix contexts is certainly more aligned with a public relations patch and not a characteristic of strategic reputation risk thinking, management, or listening.
As always, reader comments are encouraged and welcome!