by Steve Coleman
1. We have an important story to tell.
From the 1775 battle at the Lexington Village Green to the 1982 Central Park rally against the arms race (the largest peacetime gathering in U.S. history), the stories of city parks are the stories of America. Throughout history, these gathering places in the urban outdoors have been the settings for the stories of our peoples: 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 City Beautiful Movement, the Great Depression, war, suburbanization, city abandonment, racial division, the drug war, the environmental movement, the urban renaissance, and community renewal. 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.
But maybe even more important than all of this is that parks are where many of us grew up, where we first encountered Nature, where we played, where we gathered old and new friends and family, where we began to learn about life and the world around us, where we fell in love, where we went to lift our spirits with loved ones lost, and where we took our children to begin the cycle anew. Today our work in park revitalization is reshaping the look and life of communities across America. By telling the story of our work more fully, including some of the gripping life-and-death challenges that we have confronted along the way, we can build a powerful parks movement for the long haul.
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. There is no reason to expect reporters to be any more 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. 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 band-wagon of media coverage that can move surprisingly quickly up the ladder to the major news media.
One such neighborhood story was one we planted in the free press when the National Park Service asked for our help. “MERIDIAN HILL PARK TO GET UGLY DOG RUN; CONGRESSIONAL AIDE WINS, FLAUNTS POWER” caught the eye of the Washington Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune, home-town paper of the offending aide. The afternoon that the story ran on the front page of the Trib (“FUR FLIES AS CONGRESSIONAL AIDE RUNS AMOK”), both the Congressionally mandated dog run and the aide’s future in Congress were dead in the water. Finally, the Washington Post picked up the story on the front page (“MUTTS ADO ABOUT NOTHING”), complete with a photo of my dog celebrating that she could still enjoy the entire Park.
3. Credible information is power.
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 (as part of a complicated plot to gain a meeting with President Clinton), we faced the most severe challenge ever to our marketing 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 the 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.
The need for good story-telling is at the heart of both the news media and the parks movement. False and partial stories have done a great deal to erode public confidence in urban parks. We must now use hard facts and credible spokespeople to restore the parks. Since this page is paid for in part through funds generated long ago by the Reader’s Digest, we might do well to remember the founding purposes of the Digest: “to inform, enrich, entertain, and inspire.” What better watch words for communication about park revitalization?
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.
A case in point is one of my favorite Post stories about Meridian Hill. Our annual July Fourth gathering had been planned with a steel band scheduled to perform during the fireworks. Hospitalization of their bus driver forced them to cancel at 4 p.m. Undaunted, we borrowed a primitive sound system from a Park neighbor, gathered together some tapes, and headed out to the Park. Children playing at the Park were enlisted to bring their favorite tapes from home for us to play. The result was a unique combination of music and poetry tailored to the mixed audience, from Renaissance Madrigals to the Electric Slide, from Boyz II Men to Maya Angelou. The show was an unqualified hit, both for the 2,500 people in attendance and for the Washington Post reporter, whose glowing story appeared on the cover of the Metro section the following day. Real happenings, real people, real parks. What a beautiful story.
5. Don’t forget the other free media.
It’s important to tailor the media outlet or form to reach the intended audience. Frequently, the news media are 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, listserves, 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.