In a previous life as a journalist, one of us had an editor fond of yelling at offending reporters who failed to bring back a story: “There are no bad cities. Only bad reporters.”
Clearly, it’s an adage that applies just as aptly to public relations professionals.
Or at least that’s what came to mind when we read the intemperate – or should we just call it like we see it, stupid – Tweet sent by a high-ranking representative of the illustrious global public relations firm Ketchum trashing the hometown of a client that just happened to be global giant FedEx.
Apparently, James Andrews, vice-president of Ketchum Interactive Digital in Atlanta, engaged in the same kind of stereotyping that he’s fought against in his own career. Apparently, based on the behavior of one jackass in Memphis, he wrote off all of us as if he’s never encountered similar behavior in his hometown of Atlanta, the city allegedly too busy to hate (also too busy to discuss race relations honestly).
His lame attempt to explain how he essentially treated Twitter content as a spontaneous utterance only compounded the problem. We had images of Ketchum’s advice to a client in a similar situation, because we suspect it is “Apologize and ask for forgiveness.”
And the knee-jerk defenses by many who worship at the altar of social media was enough to inspire another stereotype – that they live in a Pollyannish world known for its naivete – but unlike Mr. Andrews, we’ll resist the temptation to tar everyone with the same brush.
A Couple of Things
There are two things that stood out for us as the dust settled: 1) Mr. Andrews’ bi-coastal background seems to have stunted his knowledge of Americana; and 2) Contrary to many in the blogosphere, the reaction about his comment wasn’t because it was an attack on Memphis but on FedEx.
First, as a former senior employee of Columbia Records portrayed as one cool dude who’s on the front edge of the digital frontier, Mr. Andrews needs a refresher course on how Memphis has changed world culture. From forms of music that became the beat driving the sexual revolution to entrepreneurial innovations that changed the lifestyles of all Americans – from motels to self-service groceries, from drive-in restaurants to the place where a radio station was programmed by African-Americans for African-Americans, Memphis has been seminal to contemporary culture.
As penance, we assign him to read, “Cities in Civilization,” a thick tome by the brilliant Peter Hall who distilled the story of civilization into the story of about two dozen cities over 2,000 years. And yes, one of them was Memphis, right up there with London, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris.
Missing The Point
Second, Mr. Andrews just flat missed the point about the local outrage following his Tweet. “I understand that people have tremendous pride in their hometown,” he said. In adding a comment that should be filed under the heading of “physician, heal thyself,” he added that he is “extremely committed to educating my clients and community on better ways to use social media.”
At this point, we need to admit mixed attitudes toward Twitter here. There is strong advocacy for the immediacy of its communications to friends during the day and for its ability to convey the feeling that we have a support network and advisers as our day unfolds. Meanwhile, there is the contradictory attitude that Twitter is the digital embodiment of a world too self-obsessed and primed for immediate gratification.
It makes for an interesting debate, but in the end, it’s not really what matters, because Mr. Andrews’ Tweet was the digital equivalent of killing an innocent bystander. In the end, his shot did not strike Memphis as much as it wounded FedEx. In criticizing Memphis, he perpetuated negative generalizations that the originator of global commerce fights to overcome every day as it recruits the best and brightest to its workforce.
The Real Memphis
As FedEx acknowledges, it is challenging to get the kind of workers that it needs to come to Memphis, but when they do come, they fall in love with the city. Over the years, the inventor of global commerce has learned that recruitment is more about selling Memphis than FedEx.
That’s because the vast majority of young professionals decide where they want to live before they decide where they want to work. In other words, Memphis has to be a magnet for what we’ve called the “young and the restless” in our talent reports for other cities. Unfortunately, Memphis – and most of the top 50 metros – isn’t on the list of cities attracting young college-educated professionals. Only about 16 cities are winning the competition for these knowledge workers.
Years ago, confronted with this recruitment problem, FedEx dissected its recruitment process and realized that potential employees saw little more of Memphis than the airport and the suburban Winchester/Hacks Cross area where the World Headquarters is located. Hidden from these prospective workers was the funky vibe of downtown, the great music being made by bands in Memphis right now, the rich African-American culture, the uncommon hospitality and friendliness of our people and the charm and “heart” of city neighborhoods.
Benefit Of A Doubt
To give Mr. Andrews the benefit of a doubt, perhaps he’s been trapped into the airport/world headquarters merry-go-round, and he’s not been acquainted with the fundamental essence of Memphis. While we often worry here about trends of our city and talk candidly about events that trouble us, here’s the underlying fact: we wouldn’t live anywhere else in the U.S. but here.
That’s why we appreciated so many people contributing hopeful resolutions and wishes for 2009 in the past two weeks. It’s not disturbing to us that some people disagreed with their opinions (or ours), but what is disturbing is that we have a worrisome cadre of people who seem to take pleasure in simply criticizing without offering solutions and berating anyone who dares to say something positive about our city.
There is so much right about Memphis. As we’ve said before, the most exciting and encouraging things going on here are from the bottom-up, change bubbling up from the grassroots, and new thinking spreading like a virus from self-organizing people dedicated to a better city.
Bruised And Beaten
Unfortunately, Mr. Andrews hasn’t met these people, and instead judges all of us by the worst one of us. But in trashing Memphis as the kind “one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, ‘I would die if I had to live here,’” he sent the message that all the people being recruited by FedEx that they are misguided if they even consider a job here.
That’s what so many defenders of Mr. Andrews seemed to miss. This wasn’t about our civic pride being bruised. More to the point, it was about someone who campaigned for FedEx’s business bruising their corporate recruitment programs. That’s why this isn’t about whether Twitter is a friendly aside or a casual comment to acquaintances, or whether it is personal opinion, and like all opinions, can have professional ramifications if people don’t agree with you.
In that regard, the mandate seems pretty simple: all of us need to think before you post.
Postcard For NYC
In closing, we turn to a Memphis expatriate blogging from New York. She said it well:
“I was not going to feel the need to actually defend Memphis…I was going to let it go the way of yesterday’s news. But this morning, wending my way to the train, it all came over me anew. You see, recently I’ve made a concerted effort to be less of a cynic. I don’t think my old contempts were natural; they were a pose of youth. The opening and softening of my opinions and sensibilities have been revelatory, quite pleasant. However, even I was shocked at the ‘softness’ of the thoughts occurring to me this A.M.: Memphians have poetical souls. Only poetically-souled people could love a dying city. The phrase ‘poetical souls’ was a particular surprise. But there you have it.
“Memphis is a tricky place. The crime rate is high, the gap between rich and poor enormous, the city government wicked and farcical. Much appears to be decaying about one, out of use, out of order, a lover struck with plague. But—partially because of, not in spite of its troubles—the place is full of human beauty and richness (if you don’t trust the biased natives, just ask Jim Jarmusch or Cat Power). None of this artfulness is an accident. It is the product of the incredible highs and lows, near magical forces at work. It is the product of poetry, Memphian soulfulness. SOUL MUSIC!!!!! I may live in Brooklyn now, because it’s where a young artist ought to be, but it’s not for lack of love for my hometown or the glorious friends that I have there (Pillow and Alpha!). Look across this country and you will find so many places loved by poets, loved because of their inherent flaws and feats, downs and ups, loved without hope or promise. Where are you from, Hamilton Nolan? What do you love? Are you one of those people who only love clean, easy, hermetically sealed places? Soulless places? Harrumph!
“It would be pedantic of me to make a list of all of the great soul records made in Memphis, for there are many many many, but I will provide a snippet sampler (Otis at Monterey!”