Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What is South Carolina's story?

Yesterday, I posted a note about an unfortunate letter written by a Charlestonian and published in Andy Brack's Statehouse Report. While the correspondent proposed sweeping the seamier facts and figures reflecting South Carolina's reality under the old rug, I suggested that we might be more authentic if we addressed those bad outcomes and changed our ways to make future reports better.

Brack published last week another item that speaks to the same issue: What to do about South Carolina's reality? He attended a forum sponsored by the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, where he heard Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, a former Australian premier, and a couple of public relations gurus discuss the question. Their suggestion: Rebranding.

Brack writes,

One of the first rules of politics is to define yourself and not let your opponent define you.

As a state, we've ignored this rule for too long. We've become frequent fodder for late-night comedians who poke fun at images we've brought upon ourselves -- from a philandering governor who redefined what hiking the Appalachian Trail means to the current lieutenant governor who can't seem to get his story straight on how he uses his campaign money.

One friend remarked years ago that the only time outsiders saw South Carolina in the news was about something bad -- either leaders in a pickle or when another embarrassing or bad statistic reared its ugly head.

So maybe it's high time that we devote some real effort into fixing South Carolina's image by giving ourselves a new brand. Let's make South Carolina mean more than the Palmetto tree and crescent moon logo that confuses most outsiders.

"We need to work a little bit on the good," S.C. Commerce Department chief Bobby Hitt said this week at a development forum put on by the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. "The bad and ugly are winning."

Mm. Sadly, the bad and the ugly are the doors we walk through to get to our own front porches. But I'm fully in support of Hitt's suggestion to work on the good. It's not enough to cut weeds off at the ground; you have to pull them up by the roots and replant something beneficial to the community.

But was Hitt -- and his co-panelists -- talking about digging up and replanting, or merely putting a privacy fence around our weedy lot and redirecting the public's eyes to the pretty fountain across the street?

Former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, who was on the same panel, agreed. "Marketing can change South Carolina's image."

The state may be well on its way, in fact, by ripping off an idea from its sister state of Queensland. About a dozen years ago, Beattie said his state in Australia was down in the dumps like South Carolina is. To counter the image, Queensland started investing big in biotechnology and university research. It developed the concept of Queensland being the "Smart State" for research and development in the new economy.

In May, South Carolina's Centers of Economic Excellence program, which seeks top-notch academics to join Palmetto State research universities to drive economic development, changed its name to the SmartState Program, in part as a rebranding effort. Coincidence? No.

Sounds a lot like Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, the South's own "Smart State." Heavy investment in education, check. Biotechnology and university research, check. Developed the state as a center for research and development in a new economy, check.

Question: Are South Carolina's leaders willing to make the investment that Queensland and North Carolina made to birth a new South Carolina?

Prediction: Not hardly. But we can imagine -- briefly -- before the whistle blows and we have to punch in at the timeclock again.

Alas, the public relations gurus focused on devising a palette of lipsticks to use on the pig. There are so many choices, they said.

The value of fixing the state's brand can't be underestimated, according to two of the state's top marketing and advertising executives.

"We are not telling the full story about what South Carolina has to offer in areas like business, tourism, education and quality of life," said David Campbell, president of Columbia's Chernoff Newman agency. "The advantages [of branding] are that you get to control the story and get to help shape and realign perceptions by telling our unique characteristics. Disadvantages in today’s economic environment mean that there can be large costs associated with communicating through mass media. However, we must remain competitive so we can hardly afford not to. But you must have a clear vision about what you want to communicate. What is our story -- a pro-business state, a great place for tourism, a great place to live?"

Bruce Murdy, president of Rawle Murdy Associates in Charleston, said the state should tell its story strategically over a long term to shape how people think about the state.

"Every state has strengths and every state has its weaknesses, silly stories and attention-grabbing headlines from time to time," he said. "A good branding program isn’t about ‘glossing over’ issues as much as it can help refocus and put the spotlight on the great things our state has to offer.

"We’re a great vacation destination, and yet we’re so much more. So, do we let the media highlight our unemployment rate … or do we provide them great stories about BMW, Google and Boeing? Do we let the bloggers talk about our education challenges…or do we highlight what’s going on at ICAR, CURI and the Academic Magnet High School in Charleston? Do we let the headlines underscore our high obesity rates…or do we talk about the amazing discoveries at MUSC?"

Here's a thought: Bloggers talking about South Carolina's education challenges are not the problem. A self-perpetuating system of self-satisfied government that keeps South Carolina's children and public schools stuck in the Eisenhower era is.

And if the solution is to hold up BMW, Google and Boeing as our state emblems to redirect attention, let's beginning the planning now for the next of these forums in another decade, when we can repeat the whole conversation, yet again. Maybe then we can decide that to change perceptions, we might need to change reality.

Brack wraps it up smartly:

Bottom line: It's high time to redefine South Carolina. Our leaders need to invest in a smart, long-term strategy that will inform people about what we all know about the Palmetto State. And while they get smart people to spread the good word about South Carolina, maybe they can work seriously on bettering education, technology and workforce development that can turn around some of our bad statistics.

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