Official Blog of Bannon Leadership Consulting Founder Shawn Bannon

Reinventing a Region: What Detroit Can Learn From Pittsburgh

I came across this question on LinkedIn last night, and I wanted to respond because I’ve got some relatively unique and successful experience in this particular area of public relations.  From time to time I’ll share my answers to these sorts of questions here on the Bannon Communications blog, and I invite your feedback.

Question: How do you re-brand a city like Detroit to market it to the world?

Answer: As somebody who spent the better part of the last four years actually getting paid to change perceptions about Pittsburgh, I think I’m probably in a pretty good position to provide some thoughts on this question.

Let me start with the case study: Pittsburgh.  Fifty years ago, Pittsburgh was rightly known as both the Steel City and the Smoky City.  This was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  Booming industry created great wealth, but we relied too heavily on steel production alone.  When the American steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pittsburgh lost more than 100,000 jobs.  Mills were abandoned.  Whole towns were left with no economic generator.  A generation of Pittsburghers migrated to other parts of the country, looking for a new start.  In the eyes of many, Pittsburgh was left for dead.

But by the 1980s, Pittsburgh had built a strong legacy of public-private leadership through efforts to improve air quality and to bolster business investment.  If you look up the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, you’ll find a treasure trove of information about Pittsburgh’s regional stewards over the years.  And in the 1980s, as the city teetered on the precipice, those leaders launched a new effort – often referred to as Renaissance II – to invest in the city.  They built new skyscrapers and poured millions of dollars into a project that turned a blighted section of the city into a new cultural district.  They worked with the universities (Pittsburgh is blessed to have two Tier-1 research universities – Carnegie Mellon and Pitt – along with more than 30 other schools of higher learning) to reinvent the regional economy for diversity and stability. 

Traditional manufacturers integrated new technologies to become more efficient.  We fortified existing strengths in energy and financial and business services.  We created whole new industries for the region – healthcare and life sciences, education and research, and information and communication technology.  And our improved quality of life – a cleaner, greener environment and amenities like the new cultural district, safe neighborhoods and quality schools – fueled a desire to be here.  As a result, Pittsburgh’s economy began to grow stronger.

Within 10 years, Pittsburgh had recovered the 100,000 jobs lost to the collapse of steel.  And today the region boasts about 80,000 more jobs than we had at the height of steel production.  We’re healthier because strong public and private sector partnerships over the last 30 years have created a regional economy that isn’t subject to the ups and downs of any one sector of the national or international markets.  And for that reason, though we’ve been affected by the current global economic crisis, we’ve faired better than just about all of our competitor regions and the nation as a whole.

So, that’s the point about the health of Pittsburgh, and there are a lot of lessons there for Detroit. 

First of all, the sooner you accept that the auto industry will never provide what it once did for the region, the sooner you can begin planning realistically for your future.  Here in Pittsburgh, we’re still the No. 2 market for metals industry employment in the country, but the steel companies aren’t even among our top-10 employers.  Detroit needs to begin working now – and investing – to build a more diverse regional economy.

Secondly, you need to invest in efforts to make the region as attractive as possible to business.  Any regulatory or tax policy that is remotely unwelcoming to business needs to be scrapped immediately.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep regulations in place to protect the environment or that businesses shouldn’t pay any taxes, but you need to look at your competitor regions and ensure that your business climate is as welcoming as the most business-friendly among them. 

You also need to lobby with renewed energy for federal investment to fortify the Great Lakes economic super-region in order to turn what once was called America’s Rust Belt into a modern global economic engine.  Sputtering efforts to this effect have left it off the radar of federal legislators, but with nearly two-thirds of the stimulus bill monies still unassigned, it’s time for Detroit to tell Washington to pony up.  Alone, the bailout of the auto industry won’t restore what Detroit and other cities like Madison, Wis.; Toledo, Ohio; and Buffalo, N.Y. have lost in recent decades.

Lastly, you need to make Detroit a place where people want to live.  That means improved art and cultural amenities, investment to improve outdoor recreational activities, stronger schools, and – importantly – safer neighborhoods.

But how do you accomplish these things?  Like Pittsburgh, you make real partners of your private and public sector leaders.  You elect better local officials – people who value business and who understand that businesses want to be in places where it’s desirable to live. 

Some of the most eye-opening experiences of my time working with the Allegheny Conference, Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and Pittsburgh Regional Alliance were hearing time and time again from CEOs who chose to expand or locate new businesses in Pittsburgh because, in large part, we had a quality of life that they and their employees would enjoy.  Pittsburgh has been so successful at reinventing itself because its private sector leaders were engaged by elected officials and, in turn, have invested heavily not only in their businesses but also to make Pittsburgh the most livable place in America.

So that brings us to your question about branding.  Detroit has some work to do to improve the product before you seriously think about changing the way the city is perceived.  Here in Pittsburgh, numerous attempts to re-brand the city were tried and failed for the better part of 20 years.  It’s really only in the last five years that our efforts have finally paid off.

In 2006, we launched a project called Pittsburgh 250.  It was a three-year program that included a public relations initiative focused on telling the region’s story of economic and environmental transformation.  This wasn’t about paid advertising or new slogans.  A new branding campaign was launched, it’s true, but the success of the PR effort was in our ability to earn media coverage around the world by talking about the ways we’d reinvented our economy – by showcasing the stories that were antithetic to prevailing perceptions. 

We told stories about Pittsburgh’s clean rivers, parks and trails.  We even lured the BassMasters tournament here, and we shared stories of our leadership in green building.  Pittsburgh is no longer the smoky city that favors industry over the environment, and we have the pictures to prove it. 

We told stories about Pittsburgh as an exporter of culture and coupled economic development efforts with our world-class symphony on trips to Europe and Asia. 

We told stories about advances in regenerative medicine and robotics at our universities and private R&D facilities.  We told the world about our low crime rates, stable home values, quality academic institutions and more than 20,000 open jobs just waiting to be filled. 

In other words, we told the world that Pittsburgh is a region full of opportunity.  The hook was ostensibly the upcoming celebration of our 250th anniversary, but the story was our transformation.  And over three years, we earned more than 1 billion media impressions telling that story worldwide.

But we did more than earn positive media coverage.  We successfully differentiated Pittsburgh from the rest of the Rust Belt.  In early 2008, the presidential candidates were barnstorming across the Midwest singing songs of gloom and doom about economic collapse in places like Gary, Ind. and Cleveland, Ohio.  We were, frankly, worried that they would come to Pittsburgh playing the same tune as the Pennsylvania Democratic primary took on greater importance in the race between then-Senators Clinton and Obama. 

So we proactively reached out to the campaigns.  We worked through a number of channels, including local political activists and contributors, to get our talking points into the hands – and into the thinking – of the candidates.  And it worked.  Instead of talking about Pittsburgh as just another broken-down Rust Belt town, they talked about Pittsburgh as a great success story, and candidate Obama called Pittsburgh a national model for economic and environmental transformation.

Now, I haven’t talked with the President about this, but one could deduce with some amount of confidence that his decision to bring last September’s G-20 summit to Pittsburgh – and his praise for Pittsburgh as a model of resiliency and transformation with lessons to teach the world during this economic crisis – was based at least in part on impressions made during the campaign in 2008. 

In turn, Pittsburgh enjoyed international media attention last summer unlike anything we’ve ever seen due to Steelers Super Bowls and Penguins Stanley Cups.  Three thousand reporters from around the world descended on the Burgh, and the international media coverage of our regional transformation was almost uniformly positive.  With glowing print, online and broadcast coverage on virtually every continent, perceptions of Pittsburgh have been forever changed.  And the effort is already paying dividends. 

During the week of the G-20 summit, a Korean automaker announced plans to locate a new production facility in the region.  Since the summit, event organizers who were not considering Pittsburgh have come here and booked our convention center and other facilities for major conferences.  And I’m told by my contacts in the local economic development community that they’ve never been so busy hosting potential business investors from around the world. 

What’s more, just weeks after the G-20 summit, the United Nations announced that Pittsburgh would serve as the North American Host city for World Environment Day 2010.  The Pittsburgh my parents grew up in wouldn’t even have been allowed to send visitors to an event emphasizing conservation and environmental stewardship.

So the bottom line is that branding is not Detroit’s problem today just as it was not Pittsburgh’s problem in the 1980s, but there is hope for a recovery and return to prosperity.  And when the transformative policies that put Detroit on the road to a successful reinvention of itself are in place, you’ll find yourself with a story that compels the type of media coverage that will attract business investment, talent and tourism once again.

Want to share your thoughts on this interesting issue?  Have ideas for how Detroit can capitalize on its unique strengths and emulate Pittsburgh’s success?  Leave a comment below or e-mail me.  And don’t forget to sign up to follow Bannon Communictions on Twitter.

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