Tom Clark, the executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, has worked in the economic-development field for three decades -- long enough to realize that many of the assumptions he once made about how best to publicize a city were flat wrong.
"For years, the idea was to just do advertising," Clark says. "But I spent more than $20 million over the years and generated one deal out of it."
Before taxpayers can grab their torches and pitchforks, Clark points out that organizations like his are now taking a more cost-effective approach to convincing overseers of businesses and industries that they should relocate to the area. In addition to ads, direct mail and other traditional forms of outreach, Clark and company are actively romancing the media under the theory that a little attentiveness, plus appeals shaped with the elite press in mind, may pay off with coverage more likely to hit the target than scattershot commercial buys and other expensive ploys.
As evidence, Clark references a pair of recent successes, both linked to the FasTracks light-rail measure approved by voters last month. On November 11, a FasTracks report wound up on the front page of the New York Times, thanks in part to a push from a Metro Denver contractor. Then, on November 30, Clark embarked on a two-day junket to New York City and Washington, D.C., to tout the city's transportation future alongside Frontier Airlines chief executive Jeff Potter and Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who was already heading in that direction for previously scheduled meetings with corporate site selectors. On the surface, this trio doesn't seem sexy enough to attract many scribes and shutterbugs, but they drew plenty anyhow. Potter starred in a seven-minute segment for Bloomberg Television and joined the others for chats with representatives from Time, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, as well as two trade publications, National Journal and Governing magazine. The demand was so great, in fact, that a scheduled sit-down with a reporter from another heavy-hitting pub, Business Week, fell by the wayside because of a lack of time.
Pretty much the only bump on this road trip was when Hickenlooper was pulled out of line before he could board a flight in Washington and was given a thorough once-over by Transportation Security Administration workers. No strip search was involved, but personnel did get as far as the mayor's belt. In Clark's words, "I'm glad the TSA is keeping America safe from John Hickenlooper."
The nation's readers have no such protection, thanks to tactics that began coming together eighteen months ago, when Metro Denver conducted a survey looking at outsiders' perceptions of the city. Clark, a booster from the old school, says the feedback was mostly positive, but, he concedes, "We found out they really didn't know much about what's been happening in Denver since the opening of the airport" -- an event that took place way back in 1995, when the facility's recalcitrant baggage system led many news outlets to portray DIA as a boondoggle. To make more current information available, the group significantly upgraded its web address, www.metrodenver.org, to assist companies conducting electronic research of potential new locales. The site contains one gigabyte's worth of data.
Next, Metro Denver started looking for a public-relations firm to craft a fresh community-hyping message, and eventually settled on a local operation, PURE Brand Communications. Because, according to PURE partner Dan Igoe, "Denver as a whole hasn't been an aggressive economic development group in the past decade or so," one of the first chores was "to let people know we're back in the economic-development game." To help do so, PURE brought aboard another entity, New York's Development Counsellors International, or DCI, an enterprise that specializes in economic-development and tourism marketing for cities, states and countries; its clients range from Huntsville, Alabama, to Taipei and Tasmania. "We have a lot of experience at DCI reaching out to writers with economic-development stories, because outside our tourism division, that's all we do," says Theresa La Padula, the New York-based DCI senior account executive assigned to extol Denver. "We reach out to top media, follow what they write about and keep in very close contact with them."
Adds Igoe, "My broad perspective is that a lot of these writers are looking for story angles that are a little bit different, and there's a pent-up demand about Denver because there hasn't been a lot of proactive pitching of our story. People want to know."
A little strategy doesn't hurt, either. Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, Hickenlooper's spokeswoman, describes the FasTracks story as that of "a Western city adopting East Coast ethics of transit and transit-oriented development, but with a unique Western approach and the goal of maintaining and preserving the life we treasure" -- a spin designed to pique the interest of editors along the Atlantic coastline. Hence the showcase placement of the New York Times piece, which Kirk Johnson, of the local Times bureau, wrote after being pitched by Julie Curtin, the head of DCI's Denver office.
Lent hopes this score leads to more down the line. "Our goal isn't necessarily a short-term return," she says. "We want to make sure that national business and transportation writers have FasTracks and the Denver area on their radar screen in the long term. As they're exploring issues of how cities balance improved transportation with quality of life and open space, we want Denver to be on the top of their mind."
Some news organizations seem more receptive than others. In advance of the NYC visit, Clark says the Denver crew contacted CNN and MSNBC, but neither bit, and Newsweek "wasn't able to free up a reporter." Then again, the journey as a whole went infinitely better than one Clark took with former mayor Wellington Webb back in 1992. By happenstance, they arrived in New York to hype the airport, which was then under construction, the day after the passage of Amendment 2, a controversial proposal limiting homosexual rights that led to a boycott against Colorado; the amendment was subsequently ruled unconstitutional. "A gay-rights group called Queer Nation chased us all over the city," Clark remembers. "We spent all our time explaining why we weren't a hate state. That wasn't our best day."
Clark expects a better outcome in January, when Metro Denver is flying three international reporters into the city to give them a firsthand report about FasTracks, T-Rex and DIA. "We know we can't just go out and say, 'Do a cool story on us, because we're a cool place,'" he says. "You really have to have something to show them -- and we do."
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With luck, the price tag will be considerably less than $20 million.
Walking the plank: The November 4 version of this column shared the experiences of Denver Free Radio's Carl Nimbus, whose pirate station had been shut down by the Federal Communications Commission three times over the span of a few weeks. At the time, he was unbowed, saying, "This is all about determination. They bust you fast to discourage you, but we're not going to get discouraged. We're going to keep coming back on the air."
Nimbus was as good as his word -- at first. But after several more raids, during which the FCC appeared to be actively building cases against the pirates and building owners who were purposefully kept in the dark about what was being done on their property, he reconsidered. Earlier this month, Nimbus sent an e-mail to listeners of Cactus Radio, as the signal was nicknamed, revealing that he and his cohorts were moving on to other projects. He blames the massive Clear Channel group of stations for much of what happened, even referencing a letter written to Westword by Clear Channel spokeswoman Lisa Dollinger defending the company against some of his published accusations. "Why were they afraid of a tiny, local, non-commercial broadcaster?" Nimbus writes. "Because our signal was reaching nearly ONE MILLION people, that's why. If you were tuning us in, you were tuning them out."
Although Nimbus has sold his gear to so-called "interested parties," he hints that Denver may not have heard the last of Cactus Radio. In his words, "We're looking at options that could make us untouchable." Watch out, Eliot Ness.