by Steve Coleman
The press can be a powerful ally in a park revitalization effort. Each achievement, no matter how small, can produce wider news coverage, broaden the constituency for a park, and lay the groundwork for the next story. At Meridian Hill Park in Washington, DC, one of our earliest strategic marketing decisions was to maximize free news media coverage of the positive aspects of the park in order to reach out to the vast majority of the public and leaders who had stopped coming to the site. The park had an entrenched negative history, but that history was precisely what made nearly every step we took was newsworthy – for example, the first starlight concert in 20 years was news, as was the first lighting of the fountains in almost 50 years.
These simple beginnings were sparked by a “negative” newspaper article which said our park was “losing its luster to vandalism.” In less than five years, they would lead to a White House ceremony honoring our coalition with the nation’s highest organizational honor for parks/community partnerships, the National Partnership Leadership Award. Below are five basic principles that we have found attract media coverage.
1. Realize that you have an important story to tell.
Throughout history, urban parks have been the settings for the stories of our people: Native American ceremonies, the interaction of immigrating people and ideas from around the world, struggles for religious and political freedom from the Civil War to Civil Rights, the Great Depression, war, city abandonment, racial division, the drug war, the environmental movement, and the urban renaissance.
Even more important is that parks are where many of us, including journalists, grew up, first encountered nature, played, began to learn about life and the world around us, fell in love, and took our children to begin the cycle anew. Today our work in park revitalization is reshaping the look and life of communities across America. Tying our work to these larger enduring stories can help demonstrate the significance and news impact of the park story to the press, policy-makers, philanthropists, and public.
2. If we don’t like the news written about our parks, we have to make our own.
Having been frightened out of the parks and cities for so long, much of America is still fundamentally illiterate about urban public space, and there is no reason to expect reporters to have a better understanding. The onus is therefore on park leaders to change the way that reporters write about our parks. To do this, we have to do as much of the reporter’s work as possible,amassing statistics, stories, sources, summaries of accomplishments, and surprising events and performances to compel a different kind of coverage. For example, by counting the number of trash bags removed on a clean-up day, or finding out when the last starlight concert was held, or the last time the fountains were turned on, we are providing reporters with the kind of information that helps them and their readers “see” the story more clearly.
3. Credible information is power.
False and partial stories have done a great deal to erode public confidence in urban parks. We must now use hard facts, good stories and credible spokespeople to restore people’s interest in parks. When a famous but headline-hungry comedian/activist arrived in Washington determined to camp out in our park as a protest against its long absent drug trade, we faced the most severe challenge ever to our effort to promote the park’s renewal. Here was a national celebrity telling the news media night after night, as he was arrested and his pup tent confiscated, how horribly dangerous our park was. Thankfully, we had amassed impressive official U.S. Park Police crime statistics showing 95% crime reduction, a solid photo and video archive of community programs at the park, an army of community leaders eager to stand up for the park against this “dissing” by an out-of-towner, and a press corps that was intimately familiar with the Meridian Hill “miracle.” Our information sent the comedian packing that same week — minus four pup tents.
4. It’s the park, stupid.
We get far more coverage of our work by focusing promotional efforts on the place and the people in it rather than directly on our organizations. In so doing, we actually produce greater coverage of our organizations and agencies than most standard public relations strategies and gimmicks would produce (although we do make use of slogans and other marketing campaign techniques). As a former reporter, I know that journalists very much appreciate being advised of news developments that do not appear to be either canned or in the immediate self-interest of the caller. So our media promotion is built mainly on press relationships, not puffy press releases; on sound information, not sound bites; and on the park and its people, not paper. The advantage of this strategy is that it keeps us very close to the ground in our park work. Rather than having to divert enormous amounts of time and money for slick media materials, consultants, and over-planning of park happenings, our focus remains on getting the word out about what we make happen in the park. In our more home-spun, sometimes serendipitous programs in the park, audiences and visiting journalists enjoy the fact that they are more likely to get a genuine feel of the park’s community.
5. Tailor the form to reach the intended audience
If the larger media outlets ignore our story, we can write it ourselves and print it in the neighborhood newspapers, which will often run stories nearly verbatim and with a far higher yield in reaching and motivating actively concerned community people. This creates a buzz about our work and begins a bandwagon of media coverage that can move surprisingly quickly up the ladder to the major news media.
However, don’t forget the other free media. The news media are frequently not nearly as effective routes to free promotion as more creative means. Music videos, in-flight magazines, maps, guide books, phone book covers, subway station advertising, calendars, T-shirts, apartment lobby or front yard displays, listservs, sponsored advertising and promotional brochures, professional journals, banners, feature-film placements, and special promotional events are just a few of the non-news media that we have used successfully to get the word out about the park renaissance.
Steve Coleman is president of Washington Parks and People, and Friends of Meridian Hill, both located in Washington, DC.