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Limelight brings out Memphis' flaws, strengths
Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) - 9/14/2014
Sept. 13--If outsiders don't know there's violence in Memphis, they haven't been paying attention. A perennial ranking among America's most dangerous cities seems a lock. Cops cruising mean streets are fodder for reality TV shows about gangs and other mayhem. Billboards courtesy of the police union warn "Danger: Enter at your own risk."
Against that backdrop, a viral Internet video shows black teenagers terrorizing a black and two whites in a Kroger parking lot. Racial overtones superimposed on the video by some spinmasters help propel the story last week, ignoring that it was an equal opportunity mob.
These are trying times for even the most ardent civic booster. But is this really who we are in Memphis, and is this how the outside world sees us?
City officials and boosters predictably acknowledged some damage to the city's image, but downplayed the impact on tourism and economic development.
Mayor A C Wharton and Police Director Toney Armstrong moved quickly to calm the public and deal with the problem, with Armstrong declaring to assembled media, "This is not something that is indicative to normal behavior in Memphis. This is not a weekly occurrence. There is no need for our citizens to be in fear."
Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau chief Kevin Kane said the incident isn't a national issue for the city, but it could affect the regional tourism market, where TV news feeds perceptions of Memphis as a crime-ridden city.
Perhaps more surprisingly, outside experts didn't see the city's reputation taking a body blow. They gave the city high marks for its response so far, including a spontaneous "Love Mob" demonstration at Poplar Plaza, but cautioned that damage could still grow depending on the story's shelf life.
"My bet is, if you ask people 'What you have heard about Memphis recently?' this incident would not be top of mind. Most people haven't heard about it," said Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas-based communications consultant who knows Memphis from gigs with the Greater Memphis Chamber and Methodist HealthCare.
Former Memphis tourism chief Marshall Murdaugh, who was promoting New York City when its crime wave made Time magazine's cover in 1990, said the incident pales in comparison to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. "That particular incident, by comparison, it wouldn't be just crime people would be concerned about," Murdaugh said. "They would be concerned about their own safety."
Carol Coletta, an expert on city development who splits time between Memphis and Miami, said, "I think it has been a tough week for Memphis, but can we recover from that? Absolutely. But good news needs to replace bad news. Good, positive stuff is happening."
Kane said the agency will double down on an ongoing message that tourist areas are well protected and relatively safe according to crime data.
"We take all these images seriously when Fox News or national news gets a hold of that video that shows a kid getting kicked in the head. It's not good for the city. All we can do is combat those negative images with the facts. The fact is, in our tourist areas we have a very low rate of crime," Kane said.
Reported serious crime decreased 4.2 percent in Memphis in 2013, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says. The FBI's full year results weren't available yet but a preliminary report said violent crime was down a fraction of 1 percent in 2013's first half compared to a year earlier.
Memphis has been in the top five of Forbes' annual Most Dangerous Cities list since at least 2009, claiming the No. 1 spot in 2010.
Yet, tourism has continued to grow, to $3.1 billion in visitor expenditures in 2012, and the city has marked some of its greatest economic development successes in recent memory during the last five years.
Coletta, who was previously based in Chicago, said, "Chicago continues to have a high crime rate in parts of the city, particularly in poorer sections on the South Side, but it is still attracting talent and attracting a lot of business."
Kane said, "We don't get barraged with 'We're not coming there because we think you're one of the most dangerous cities in America.' I think the product is going to overshadow the (Forbes) list or an isolated incident."
Kane added, "We've only had one email from a would-be visitor from California who said they saw the Poplar Plaza video, and they were planning a trip to Memphis, and they were going somewhere else. That's unfortunate, and all we can do is try to highlight the positives and talk about the proactive things we do to make sure the community is safe."
Greater Memphis Chamber president Phil Trenary, referring to site selection consultants who help big companies make investment decisions, said, "When people talk to us about Memphis, crime doesn't make the top three. They want to talk about workforce, the fiscal condition of the city and the airport. I think people are starting to understand the great things Memphis has to offer."
Chamber members have participated in sister organization Memphis Tomorrow's support for Operation: Safe Community, but the organization has no programs that directly address public safety. Ongoing chamber initiatives, dubbed Moon Missions, deal indirectly with crime because they focus on root causes of poverty, including education, workforce readiness and recreation.
"So far we're not seeing any direct negative impact" of the Poplar Plaza incident, Trenary said. "I don't think it would have made a mention anywhere had it not been for social media."
A YouTube video of the incident attracted 506,000 views by Friday, stirring commentary on conservative outlets like the Drudge Report, which headlined the story "Mob of Black Teens In Tennessee Beat Two White Grocery Employees."
Local reaction is another matter.
Sometimes public relations is more about internal response than external, Murdaugh noted. During his Memphis tenure from 1984-1988, he was surprised that many still defined the city as striving to overcome the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968.
"One thing to do is get a real feel for who's really concerned about this. I find in many cases, it's the local residents who are concerned about the perceptions of the community," Murdaugh said.
Trenary said some Memphians brag about the city's negatives.
"I tell people all the time Memphians take complaining about Memphis to a whole new art form. That's ridiculous. You compare our negatives to other cities, over and over again we do better."
Trenary stopped in at the Kroger one night last week and found it packed, "like it was Christmas Eve. Everyone was so incredibly friendly and warm. It looked like Memphis. All races. All kinds of people and folks."
From Dallas, Merrie Spaeth, founder of Spaeth Communications, said, "I think the city gets good marks for how they addressed it. I loved the Love Mob. It does seem to have been spontaneous and a grass-roots effort. I think that speaks well of the city."
The impromptu gathering of Memphis promoters demonstrated the power of social media to build community and present the city's positives, Spaeth said.
"People in Memphis I think have a lot to be proud of. It's important they redouble their efforts," Spaeth said. "Today the virtual networks work on your behalf as well. This is the moment to remind them what else is going on."
Memphis promoters said their job is made even tougher by an abundance of visuals bolstering negative impressions.
TV programs like A&E's "The First 48" and a National Geographic special, "Drugs Inc." draw eyeballs to the Memphis underworld. National Geographic's "Memphis Mayhem" episode this summer aired footage of police and gangbangers in Whitehaven, not far from Graceland.
"When you're showing the good side of law enforcement you're showing the bad side of a community," Kane said. "You just don't like to see your dirty laundry aired on national TV."
Some damage is self-inflicted, such as when the Memphis Police Association put up billboards on major arteries last year to press its case for previous pay cuts to be restored. The billboards came down after the city capitulated.
Gale Jones Carson, director of corporate communications for Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, worries about attempts to make the Poplar Plaza incident a racial issue. Actor James Wood contributed social media tweets calling on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate it as a hate crime.
"I'm hoping there's no kind of retaliation based on hate," Carson said. "If you look at the Internet, you will find there's a lot of hate in Memphis, Shelby County and in the country. I think the hate in this country is very dangerous ..."
Some of the backlash to the Poplar Plaza incident has been Internet chatter about people arming themselves against young thugs.
A reporter at the Tuesday news conference asked Dist. Atty. Amy Weirich whether people have a legal right to use deadly force on juveniles. She said in part that under Tennessee law, "if you feel that your life or the lives of others are at risk, you have the right to stand your ground, to defend yourself. But again, it's not -- as we've seen across the country -- that's not a cut and dried easy answer all the time."
Wood's tweets notwithstanding, Deidre Malone, president of The Carter Malone Group, said, "The national news spin is not so much about race in this incident, it's more so about youth violence and what's really going on with potentially gangs and youth." Budget cuts have reduced positive, structured activities for young people. "There's not a whole lot for them to do."
At the same time, Malone said Memphis and America can't hide from the race issue.
"I think this country because of Ferguson is probably very sensitive to the issue of race. I think that Memphis does have a problem with race, and I think it's something that a lot of people want to shy away from and not really have a candid discussion about, and we should. The only way we are going to deal with it is if we start having real, honest conversations about it."
Carol Coletta, having worked from offices in Chicago and now Miami while keeping a home in Memphis, said building a national reputation is Memphis's bigger challenge, not repairing damage from a short-lived flurry of attention.
"I don't think (Memphis has) an image that is so solidified that you can't build the story," Coletta said
What Memphis does offer is a blank slate.
"Having a sense that you can shape the future of a city is really attractive to a lot of creative people," Coletta said. " I feel like in a lot of ways, that's the story we haven't told about our city. I think Memphis is an incredible canvas and you're beginning to see people shape parts of it that have been long neglected."
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