Monday, April 11, 2016

North Carolina Latest to Demonstrate Why Public Policy Matters in Place Branding

Last week, PayPal announced they were cancelling plans for a new 400 employee operations center in North Carolina due to the passage of an anti-LGBT law. The law has brought rebukes from rights groups, business leaders, artists and entertainers, and led to more than a dozen canceled conventions. Meanwhile CNN reported that Mississippi’s tourism industry is facing a backlash in response to passage of a similar law. 

This public outcry should not be surprising to legislators in those states since loud objections and threats of economic boycotts were voiced when similar laws were proposed in Indiana and Arkansas last year.

The negative impact of these legislative efforts demonstrate why you cannot separate place branding from public policy. Legislation and rules, whether considered pro-business or anti-LGBT, impact how people view a place and their desire to interact with it.  Indeed some, like Simon Anholt of the Good Country, argue that place branding is only accomplished by policies and public diplomacy, not by marketing or communications.

Some public officials understand this. North Carolina's Attorney General Roy Cooper said he would refuse to defend the law in court. "We're talking about discrimination here," Cooper said at a press conference, according to CNN. "Not only is this new law a national embarrassment, it will set North Carolina's economy back." Governors in Ohio and South Carolina have denounced anti-LGBT laws, without a corresponding backlash.

Surprisingly, though, North Carolina’s top economic development official has chosen to stay mum on the topic even as companies threaten to leave.
Chris Chung, chief executive of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, was quoted by the Charlotte Observer as saying his organization recognizes “the wide range of opinions on the new legislation, but as an organization that performs under contract with the state government, the EDPNC does not take positions on matters of public policy.”

What?  Groups like the EDPNC spend millions of dollars annually to promote their place as a desirable location for business investment, travel and residents.  Many public officials claim that “economic development” and “job creation” are their number one priority.  When their actions threaten to destroy those efforts, someone needs to speak up and point out the inseparable connection between the two.

Places have images just as products and corporations do. Consumer acceptance of the product or place is dependent on creating a positive image. Those images must be built from within and based on something authentic, not constructed by a marketing or PR campaign.

In other words, actions speak louder than words.  If a product benefits from a great marketing campaign but it does not satisfy its user, then the product is a failure.  Likewise, in place branding, a state like Michigan, for instance, can have the best television ads in the world to support their “Pure Michigan” brand, but a failure of public policy around providing clean water to its residents in Flint can undermine the whole effort both past and future. 

Public policy and place branding must work in harmony with each other.  By passing legislation that is objectionable to some of the same audiences that economic development agencies are trying to reach, the policy makers in these states undermine their economic development efforts.  It will take many months – or even years – to overcome the damage caused to the brands of these states by their legislators.  If they are truly interested in "economic development", they must learn to focus on substantive measures that improve the competitiveness and image of their location, not symbolic actions that are intended to curry favor with a particular political constituency.


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