June 2, 2006: 10:09 am: Birmingham, Helpful Hints

There’s an old saying in the legal profession. “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. And when neither is on your side, pound the table.”

As crass as that sounds, there is a large element of truth — and that is the consistent triumph of emotional massages over rational ones. It’s also why one good story can squash a statistical proof.

This came to mind in the last couple of days, as I was thinking about the impact of a very public and high-profile carjacking in downtown Birmingham. Sandra Gregory was kidnapped just outside of her loft apartment, and forced to drive to several ATMs before her rescue Wednesday afternoon.

One element that got attention was the fact that she lived in a newly rejuvenated loft community, one that is actively recruiting professionals to return to urban lifestyles. Her morning commute to the office was generally a two-block walk.

I covered the crime beat in Birmingham for several years, and know first-hand that the crime rate downtown was perhaps the lowest in the entire metro. But all it takes is one high-profile and emotional incident to enflame stereotypes and set back the image and reputation. I didn’t have time to write this yesterday, but I was curious to see who would go back and proactively offer the counter-story — placing this attack in proper context.

This time, it was a cooperative sponsored by downtown businesses that stepped up:

“We have struggled with a perception of downtown safety,” said Teresa Thorne of the City Action Partnership, or CAP security program, a city-operated service that provides escorts and vehicle assistance to residents, workers and visitors downtown. “In the past 10 years, the downtown crime statistics have dropped 59 percent.”

Teresa Thorne is a retired Birmingham Police Captain, who once ran a precinct. Her CAP unit provides escorts and additional presence in the downtown business community. While her job isn’t “PR” per se, it is her job to make people feel more at ease about the safety of that neighborhood.

Other city-promotion agencies like Operation New Birmingham are being proactive in providing the statistical proof of safety. Unfortunately, facts and stats need to be backed up with individual stories, or they will not overpower quotes like this one:

Former downtown resident Edd Dover, who until February lived in the Watts apartment building where Gregory was abducted, said CAP officers help a lot, but problems begin after 5 p.m. and continue overnight, when CAP officers are off duty.

“In that part of downtown, there’s barely any police presence,” said Dover, who said he moved out partly because of vandalism and vagrants in that apartment’s parking lot. “I’m 6 feet 5, but I was always on guard. There were people in the Dumpster when I’d go take my garbage out, and people asking me for money when I’d walk my dog at 5:30 in the morning. Everybody wants this downtown to succeed, but until they clean it up, it won’t work.”

I borrow again from Annette Simmons in The Story Factor:

“People have more facts than they will ever use. They need a new story to give those facts context.”

The book comes with my highest recommendation.

May 26, 2006: 10:17 am: Birmingham, Scrushy

There are a lot of trophies and honors to shoot for in life. Trophies gather dust, honors can be forgotten. You make it into the language, and you’re remembered forever — when your name becomes a verb or an adjective.

Think “Ruthian” home run, “Wagnerian” epic, “Freudian” slip. Even “Goliath” is a name that came to mean something else.

Just make sure your lexical legacy is a good one. Richard Scrushy is close to that, and not in a good way.

It’s starting to show up in the coverage of the Ken Lay/Enron prosecution. Apparently, Lay is trying to reclaim a 7-figure gift to the University of Missouri. At first, he asked the money be re-allocated to churches and relief organizations responding to last year’s hurricanes. By this February, his attorney’s were back in Columbia, seeking to tap that endowment to cover legal expenses.

What interested me was the description of a strategy that involves a great deal of public pre-trial philanthropy:

This has all the smell of a Richard Scrushy effort,” says Mizzou alum Thomas Battistoni, a New York litigator who until recently sat on an alumni board for the MU College of Arts and Science, overseers of the economics department — and hence the chair. Scrushy, the former head of HealthSouth Corp., poured over $700,000 into Birmingham, Ala., churches and ministries during his felony trial in 2004, a coincidence noted with more than a little skepticism by his prosecutors. (Scrushy was acquitted). Battistoni raises similar questions about Lay’s attempt to divert the money to charities in the fall before his trial started, but he doesn’t believe the money is “tainted” since it was donated before the shenanigans at Enron began.

The adjective “Scrushyesque” has only appeared once before this post, in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, used by former federal prosecutor Jacob Frenkel to describe the effect of home-court advantage on fraud cases:

Frenkel said it’s too early to know if the government was smart in bringing the (Ken Lay) trial to Houston, where there has been a huge loss of jobs. “It’s a different jury pool, different facts, a different city. There’s no way of knowing if the verdict is going to be Scrushyesque.”

Reputation management is all about protecting your name and your brand. And if it’s your name on the line, there is no reset button to switch to change it, a move Scrushy’s old company is considering.

May 19, 2006: 3:19 pm: Birmingham, From the Front

I didn’t sign up to become an expert on RSS implementations. I just know a lot of people who can use it, and know even less than I do. So I do what I can.

Today, that meant leading about a couple dozen American Red Cross chapter communicators through an ad-hoc teleconference about the Alert System we put together in Birmingham. Not having a budget for a real Webex, I made a 50-page “slideshow” made up of relevant screen captures. Arg. (I felt like “Mr. Filmstrip,” telling everyone to click “next“.)

I hope I did enough explaining to get them interested, and not so much to scare them out of it. These PR folks are scattered across most of the Western U.S., minus California and Hawaii — and a great deal of land to cover. Any tech tool to push critical information out more quickly can make a big difference.

Anyway — as to the shameless part. As part of my evolution from “media relations guy” to “real PR guy,” I’ve been doing the metric thing. In this case, I’ve been counting the number of downloads from various outlets. For instance, if you download the customized RSS reader from our chapter website, you trigger a counter. If you download it from the Alert Page itself, it triggers another counter. That way, I can keep a log of where the real traffic is, and where to focus the interest. (And I can have a neat little project for my APR certification process, whenever that might be.)

So far, here are some key stats to date:

  • Downloads from chapter website: 303
  • Downloads from direct e-vites: 29
  • Downloads from March newsletter: 8
  • Downloads from April newsletter: 20
  • Downloads from this blog: 91

We didn’t get much in the way of local media on this until after the April e-mail, so we’ll see how much steam this generates going into the May newsletter.

May 18, 2006: 8:39 am: Birmingham, Rants

Well, it’s down to two on American Idol. And for the third time in four years, Birmingham has one of the finalists. (Four if you count Diana Degarmo, who was born here but raised elsewhere.)

For the past few weeks, there have been a slew of articles and blogs and broadcast pieces about why “the south” does so well in the world’s most-hyped karaoke contest. Some account for the Birmingham success with the “church factor,” some with other cultural and anthropological underpinnings. Jake Tapper at ABC did a piece looking at Idol votes through a political lens.

So far, nobody has it right, and we see such mind-numbing stereotypes as this:

“Perhaps most intriguing, as the fifth season continues, is to consider how much more talent remains out there in the hill towns and dust buckets of the South, and will rarely be heard past the local 4-H show, halftime at the high school football game, or at Sunday church.”

Amateur anthropology aside, there are a couple of important factors that get overlooked… a major key and a minor key, if you will.

Minor key: The South still has an underdog mentality.

If you know anything about college football, you know that the SEC takes it more seriously than anyone else. Lives revolve around football season. To know why, you have to go back 80 years to the Rose Bowl. Southern football teams were often disregarded and ignored by the pundits and voters in the northeast. That is, until the University of Alabama finally broke through with an actual invitation to the Rose Bowl, where it upset a highly regarded Washington team. That was a milestone achievement in Southern pride — and that’s why college sports get royal treatment, befitting the first arena where the region levelled the post-Reconstruction playing field.

Take it to the bank — Southerners are competitive in everything else, too. (And they also keep score on who “gets it” from the outside. I’m sure there is a lot of grumbling over the fact that Tapper included Oklahoma and Texas as part of “Dixie.”)

Major key: Ratings, ratings, ratings.

Lost in all of the analysis is the fact that Birmingham has the highest-rated Fox affiliate in the country. WBRC was a powerhouse long before Rupert Murdoch purchased it in 1996. Nearly ten years later, it remains locked in a close battle for number one in each newscast, each sweeps period being a tossup. Outsiders will claim that Idol props up Fox-6, but it’s really the other way around. WBRC has been savvy and effective in promoting and hyping American Idol, and has the viewership to make a difference.

The point? You can spend a lot of time musing, pondering, and cogitating about a situation that you can’t explain — but often the answer is simpler than we think.

May 16, 2006: 9:07 am: Birmingham

It looks like several years of bad press might force a name change at HealthSouth.

CEO Jay Grinney toldd analysts yesterday that a new name might be in HealthSouth’s future, to separate it from its past.

“We are evaluating if a name change is warranted, given the extent to which our name has been tarnished.”

With founder and former CEO Richard Scrushy still fighting legal troubles in advance of civil lawsuits, keeping the HealthSouth name out of negative articles is beyond impossible.

Of course, it might also have something to do with bigger-than-expected first-quarter losses.

Either way, you know you’ve hit a milestone in reputation management when it’s easier to scrap the brand with more than two decades of investment and start completely over. That’s also not to say that the name change will stick. Monsanto tried it years ago, and a lot of people still use that name instead of the newer “Solutia.”

Any suggestions for a new name?

April 4, 2006: 4:26 pm: Birmingham, Personal

I’ve been quiet for a few days, working on a number of projects. Let’s just say that it stands to be a busy summer.

I might as well unveil the curtain on a project I’ve now ushered into public use.

It’s a custom-branded RSS reader, which comes pre-loaded with links to our local Community Alert pages for the American Red Cross in Birmingham and the local EMA.

Since the vast majority of internet users know how about aggregators or how to manually add feeds, this installer package has a great potential for our Red Cross chapter. In fact, the whole thing is designed to be seamless enough that the average user might still not understand what RSS is.

We’ve rolled it out locally, and I am tracking the number of downloads through various venues. It’s primarily targeted for the media, and will be a great asset the next time we have a huge disaster response. But since all of the information is public, we’re also pushing it to local municipalities, our board, and anyone else who has a vested interest in knowing about pending emergencies.

In order to make this work, we had to find the right piece of software — and being a non-profit, we had to make it affordable. Our RSS reader had to have some key features:

  • Free to use and distribute
  • Included a “pop-up” notification
  • Customizable with our logo and branding
  • Adware and spyware free
  • Short refresh cycle

Check out Newsplorer! We were lucky to find just such a program, called Newsplorer. The developer was very kind to set us up with some technical assistance and a customized installer package.

That pop-up notifier was so critical. In a newsroom environment, you can’t expect people to manually refresh their feedlist (assuming they had one.) Otherwise, you could just ask them to manually refresh the old-fashioned newsroom page. With the system-tray pop, and an option to check the feed every minute, we now had a system capable of generating dozens of alerts per day, if events and emergencies warrant it.

Download it and give it a whirl. If you don’t see anything for awhile, that means that nothing bad is happening!

March 27, 2006: 3:04 pm: Big Blunders, Birmingham, Helpful Hints

Today, we get an object lesson that cuts both ways. Literally an “up” and a “down” in the same breath.

Alabama’s amusement park, VisionLand, is getting a new name. The name was coined by then Fairfield Mayor Larry Langford, whose grand(iose) vision was a local destination for kids, and an economic engine for western Jefferson County. The name “VisionLand” was appropriate for the task of selling several municipalities on the project. (Say what you will — no one else could have pushed it through with sheer force of rhetoric and will.)

After a few seasons of missed projections and bad luck, the park authority found a buyer. The California-based Southland Entertainment Group bought the park three years ago, and becomes of the focus of today’s “lesson.”

First of all, a name change is a good idea. The park is in need of a fresh look from potential visitors, and this is a great platform from which to launch a campaign. The park will now be known as Alabama Adventure.

At a news conference, the company stated that it wanted to change the park first, and then the name. This makes sense — don’t just sell us on an image or a slogan; give us a new and compelling reason to come, then hit us with the campaign. Southland claims to have invested $20-million in improvements since taking over, including a steel rollercoaster, a wave pool, and other attractions.

Lesson one: Don’t just play semantics. Give us a real change, and let the name be an extension. Good move.

However, there’s absolutely nothing (as of my posting) on the VisionLand website indicating a name change. Zero. Zip. Nada. Worse, I tried in my browser, I Googled for it… and nothing. Not exactly the complete rollout one would want.

Lesson two: If you’re building a campaign around changes and fresh buzz, then make it easy for people who want to find out more.

And like a roller coaster, that’s the kind of up and down that will make you sick…

Update: the website now reflects the new name, and the address forwards to the site as well. (I’d like to take credit, so… thank you!!)

March 21, 2006: 4:04 pm: Big Blunders, Birmingham

Viral marketing is spreading like a bad disease, and sometimes those with “guerilla marketing fever” just aren’t immune to the temptation to lie.

We’ll find out soon enough if the Birmingham SteelDogs are barking down the path to the dark side.

A few days ago, billboards started popping up around Birmingham, stirring support to shut down figure skating. The billboards linked to a companion website:

Support those who offer wholesome alternatives to figure skating. In Birmingham, Alabama, an arena football team is making a difference. By building their field on top of the largest ice rink in the state, they have assured there will be absolutely NO figure skating on these dates. There will only be exciting football games with plenty of fun for the kids. Even though the Birmingham Steeldogs have not returned any of our calls, we have included a link to their website because we want to support their obvious anti-figure-skating stance. Buy your tickets now and STRIKE A BLOW AGAINST THIS PSUEDO-SPORT!!!

Now, with all the talk about transparency, you’d think the Steeldogs would own up to it when asked. Instead, the statement from managing partner Scott Myers feigns total ignorance:

“The Birmingham Steeldogs are in no way opposed to figure skating,” Myers said. “In fact, I have really enjoyed watching the ‘Skating With Celebrities’ television program that airs before ‘24′ on Fox 6.”

“We are in full agreement, however, that the Steeldogs are a great family entertainment value,” Myers added. “We believe that all sports fans, regardless of what their favorite sport is, should come out and enjoy arena football this season.”

(Myers ought to be a skating fan — he’s the former General Manager of the Birmingham Bulls ECHL franchise, which rode a bear market out of town years ago.)

The thinly-veiled disguise of Larry Pamper was used to kick off the whole buzz on the Steeldogs’ message boards. Apparently, “Pamper” is such a big fan that this is hiis one and only post.

In light of all the recent gnashing of teeth about transparency in public relations, will the SteelDogs go to the doghouse over this? Probably not. When it comes to minor-league sports, the only real controversy you ever face is if you bungle the selection of a mascot.

(No, John, I’m not talking about Houston soccer. Vince McMahon’s XFL came very close to dubbing its Birmingham franchise the “Blast,” a great alliterative name that just doesn’t set to well in a town known for a fatal church bombing.)

March 9, 2006: 12:36 am: Birmingham, Church Fires

Birmingham-Southern College is stepping out with a statement about the arrest of its students implicated in the Alabama church fires.

It’s not earth-shattering by any stretch, but when your sky is already falling you’re better off playing it safe. There are some obligatory points you have to hit in these situations. The key is to be humble, sincere, and apologetic without admitting any culpability or liability. You don’t want to over-apologize to the point of a guilty posture.

The quotes from Birmingham-Southern College President Dr. David Pollick run the gamut from sympathy

“In response to the two students having been charged with arson of nine Alabama community churches, Birmingham-Southern College has suspended each student from the college and immediately banned them from campus awaiting further action by the authorities. The students, faculty and staff of our college are at once shocked and outraged, and we share the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represent the heart and soul of their communities.

…to blaming society

“These cruel and senseless acts of destruction have profoundly touched our college community. Where there once existed such a clear line between the harmless and playful and the harmful and cruel, we increasingly see young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct. Boundaries are all too often exceeded. The social use of alcohol moves easily and too frequently to dangerous irresponsibility. Innocent and healthy stages of interpersonal social encounters too frequently degrade to violent and personal acts of violation. We see symptoms of a culture of personal license so powerfully magnified in the actions of these young men.”

… to an extension of humanity and aid

“We also are deeply concerned for the families of these young men, knowing the pain they are experiencing. The entire community of Birmingham-Southern College—students, faculty, and staff—pledges to aid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labor. Together we’ll stand as a reminder of the strength of communities that transcend the differences of religion and place, as well as the effects of mindless cruelty.”

Campus Police Chief Randy Youngblood added the obligatory comment designed to demonstrate transparency and a commitment to justice:

“The college cooperated in every regard to the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the state Fire Marshall’s Office, and we will continue to do so as needed.”

To be honest, those cop-talk bites are fairly rote and scripted. I’m fairly certain part of the “cooperation” entails saying just this much about the investigation, and no more.

Thoughts from the peanut gallery, anyone?

March 8, 2006: 3:07 pm: Birmingham, Church Fires

Fires are a staple of television news — and church fires are a symbol of outright hatred and violence. Put them together, and you have a compelling combination that draws attention from around the globe.

The ATF and FBI have arrested three college students — charged with the intentional torching of nine churches in central and west Alabama. The first five happened in rural Bibb County. The other four were scattered in other counties a few days later, in an attempt to throw a wrench in the investigative track.

In one sense, these communities can start putting these events behind them. Knowing that it was dumb college kids and not race-or-religion-based hate is a slight comfort. Unfortunately, past history tells us that public perception on the national scale will not catch up to the facts. If asked, most people outside of the state will tell you that the last round of hyped church burnings (mid ’90s) were a racial plot, when in fact most were set by members. A year from now, others will insist the Bibb County church fires were set by the Klan. (A funny thought, considering that all five of the Bibb churches were white congregations.)

The state of Alabama has a long way to go in changing perceptions, and its people are at the mercy and whim of those who are content to carry the stereotypes. Those minds won’t be changed until they are ready.

While the state’s image is the indirect “loser” in this affair, the PR staff at Birmingham-Southern College is working to avoid direct fallout. Two of the three arrested are BSC students — and that is not exactly the top-of-mind impression you want to leave. Already, the school is fielding questions about the investigation, part of which occurred on campus:

“I can confirm the FBI was on our campus last evening conducting an investigation,” school spokeswoman Linda Hallmark said today. “At this time, we know nothing more than that. We’re waiting on information and instruction from the FBI.”

UPDATE: Birmingham-Southern is going out of its way to come out of this in as positive a position as possible:

At a press conference this afternoon, Birmingham-Southern President David Pollick pledged to “aid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labors.”

Pollick said it was too early to determine whether the aid would be in the form of money or labor. “We’re hoping to find the best way to help.”

UPDATE 2: An analysis of the BSC official statement

The embers of perception burn long after the fires of hate go cold.

March 2, 2006: 6:45 am: Big Blunders, Birmingham

Everyone could use a little media training, even if they never stand before a camera. You’ll never know when an appearance before the wrong lens will end your career. Even if your “career” is fraud.

Wesley Warren of Walker County, Alabama, has pleaded guilty to two counts of FEMA/Hurricane fraud. Each count carries a five-year/$250,000 maximum penalty. Warren passed himself off as a New Orleans evacuee, when in fact he’s really from Jasper.

That’s Jasper, as in Walker County. The same county where he filed his claims.

So, exactly how did this criminal mastermind trip himself up?

The Walker County native gained local notoriety after being featured in a Daily Mountain Eagle article under the alias Wesley Wood. An article published on Sept. 11, in the Eagle’s Lifestyles section featured several accounts of individuals who had fled their homes to escape the destruction of the massive hurricane. Among them, Warren, posing as Wood, related a dramatic story that, according to prosecutors, never happened. Warren’s picture also ran with the story.

Emphasis mine. He allowed his picture to be taken by his hometown paper.

Kidding aside, fraud has been a simmering issue in the relief community. The Red Cross and other groups were faced with a choice: fraud-proof the system, or get the help out the door. They opted for the latter. The difficulty comes when the “bad news big fraud” stories get front page play, and all of the individual convictions and prosecutions get leaked out over time. It’s hard to get reporters and editors interested in a trickle of good evidence, even if it outweighs the bad.

That’s life. Deal with it.

February 7, 2006: 5:12 pm: Birmingham, Scrushy

We’re told that ignorance is no defense… except when the law is so poorly defined that it “really is.”

Case in point: Richard Scrushy, the ousted founder of HealthSouth.

During his fraud trial, some pundits wondered whether he could put away the ego and admit to “not being in charge of the ship.” It was his only real defense, as five former CFOs took the stand to implicate him.

Some would go down swinging, especially those who are so concerned about their reputations and public personae.

The dynamic that played out here was a quirk of the new Sarbanes-Oxley law: it required “proof of knowledge.” One had to knowingly violate it — and science-fiction aside, there is no way short of a paper trail of proving what is going on in someone’s head.

So the state couldn’t make a case, Scrushy was acquitted, and now he’s touring state pulpits as a reformed man. He recently appeared on Hannity and Colmes, painting himself as a cockolded spouse:

“I think the buck stops with the people that are guilty,” Scrushy said. “In any situation you can be deceived. Take, for example, a husband and wife, live together for many, many years. The wife finds out the husband was having an affair. They sleep in the same bed every night. They brush their teeth in the same bathroom. They eat together every day for years. So, if you’re deceived, if something is concealed and not shown to you or if no one tells you about it, you shouldn’t be held responsible for something you had nothing to do with.”

Scrushy said a company as large as HealthSouth makes it more difficult to monitor what everyone is doing.

“I do know that when you have big corporations and you have a lot of people – the CEO – there is no way that he can know everything,” he said.

The folks over at took a different read, calling it the “Sergeant Shultz defense:

Last night, Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes made Larry King look like Edward R. Murrow. I’m referring to Hannity and Colmes’s cartoonish interview of Richard Scrushy on FOX.

Scrushy didn’t need to break a sweat in reprising his ”Sergeant Schultz” defense — that he ”knew nothing” while his rogue underlings, including five former chief financial officers, committed a $2.7 billion fraud at HealthSouth.

The pathetic bipartisan duo allowed Scrushy to say things like “the buck stops with people who were guilty,” to compare his innocence to the person who is unaware of their spouse’s transgressions even though they share a bed, and to assert that the government didn’t spend that much time investigating his case.

Why the fuss? The Scrushys still aren’t out of the woods yet, with civil suits (and a lower burden of proof) still looming. Expect the positioning to continue.

February 3, 2006: 5:28 pm: Birmingham, Helpful Hints

I’ve had more potential clients than real clients in my slowly-growing media consultancy gig. But what is more frustrating is what keeps getting in the way.

One state agency wanted to train a bunch of folks a few years back. The nature of their jobs created some real headaches when it came to defending their actions and protocols. I pitched a program tailored to their needs, and off we went.

My only problem at that time was my continued employment in television news.

What I needed was a solid firewall. Someone else who would bankroll the training, preventing any real conflict-of-interest charges. We found it, in a private foundation grant. (Bear in mind that I only did seminar work geared toward prevention at that time, and was not a resource for people looking for real-time crisis messaging.)

Then “bad headline #1″ hit the papers, and the agency was too busy with damage control to consider damage mitigation training.

Months later, we were ready to go again, and actually had a contract drafted that fit all of the applicable criteria. I never did get the signed fax back, and I found out why the next morning, when “headline #2″ splashed across the front page.

Again, too much heat to consider working it then and there. The client did not want to be seen spending money on image and reputation management.

Finally, we got everything worked out again. I was free of any possible conflicts, and actually had a couple of new seminar options available that would have helped this agency’s employees immensely. Who knew that one week later the agency would be sanctioned by a judge, and the director (with whom I had dealt) forced into an early retirement???

For a lot of people, “crisis management training” is this iffy insurance policy. There really is no tangible guarantee it will make anything better. (Other than the word of every person whose ever faced a pack of cameras, and felt more confident because of the prep work.) It’s just frustrating when the very people who need the training the most are the ones whose lack of training gets in the way of getting it.

January 25, 2006: 5:15 pm: Birmingham

All things considered, Birmingham is not a bad place to be. It’s small for a big city, and too big to be a town. The lack of super-skyscrapers downtown is a direct byproduct of having an airport within sight — and that’s a rare thing these days.

The air is a lot cleaner these days, that the major industries are education and healthcare. And Birmingham has one of the most impressive underground fiber-optic infrastructures in the country.

Yet when you mention Birmingham outside of the region, most people are still stuck on discrimination, hoses, police dogs, dirt roads, and outhouses.

What has not changed is Birmingham’s success in telling its own compelling story to national and international audiences. As a result, there is little perception in key national markets of the Birmingham region as a place that not only exemplifies the possibilities of progressive change, but is building on the foundation of that change by seeking to develop its financial, logistical and human resources to the fullest extent. Yes, Birmingham has changed; but most of the nation – or, more to the point, most key corporate location decision-makers, most would-be entrepreneurs, most skilled talent in high-growth business fields – does not know that, or care to know it.

click here to view this videoTechBirmingham is out to change that, and is actively pitching emerging tech industries. In my past life, I did a couple of features on these businesses that thanks to the internet could locate anywhere. Why not pick a place where you could set up in a historic brick building with character — enjoy a comparitively low cost of living — take a 15 minute drive to the airport if you need to fly — and still plug into a T3?

TechBirmingham is hitting this project on several fronts, including a local television PSA campaign aimed at educating locals about the advantages they enjoy. It’s volunteers have also embarked on a project to showcase all 199 (and counting) wireless access points within the metro. (Which includes all 5 acres of Vulcan Park. Free.) They are blogging about it here.

I’ll be tracking their efforts as they go, and may even pitch in as my schedule allows. (Although among my full-time job, my freelance consulting, my family, and my Kung Fu students, there’s not a lot of time left.)

January 23, 2006: 1:42 pm: Birmingham, From the Front

When crunch time hits, you have to think in terms of communications in both directions. When people can’t reach you, they either leave disenfranchised or outright disgusted.

When Hurricane Katrina sent tens of thousands of people to Birmingham, we were getting deluged at the Red Cross office with people trying to call in to offer “something.” The biggest complaint was that “we weren’t answering the phones” and “we weren’t acting fast enough.” The worst PR we faced early on was the swarming and overwhelming of our communication system.

The year before, we faced a similar dilemma on a smaller scale, as local media pounded us for shelter information and updates with Hurricane Ivan. We got around that issue by pushing the assignment desks and producers to a page on our website that was updated every hour. We even pushed that information to police departments and other dispatch agencies to use as an online resource for people calling from the evacuation routes. It worked like a charm, and within a half-day our incoming media traffic was again manageable.

That wouldn’t work as well for Katrina, because “the public” is magnitudes larger than “the media,” and the expectation level was far higher. So we went a different route.

Through our media partners, we urged the general public to not bring us random items and non-monetary donations — but to register them with us on the internet. We set up a special e-mail address, and asked that they put the “proposed in-kind donation” on the subject line, and their personal and contact info in the message body. Those without internet access were sent to a volunteer who would take their information and send it in e-mail form for them. We set it up on a free gmail account for some key reasons:

  • It kept the bandwidth off our server
  • Our volunteers who needed to access it could do so without a special network connection
  • It is easily searchable, allowing us to get exactly what we needed without looking at every message
  • We could use what we needed, and not collect a bunch of items that would have cost us to store or even dispose of

(In the end, we had a nice database of folks that we can discreetly call on in the future for training opportunities…)

This did have a measurable impact on our incoming phone traffic. The message we delivered with this move was “We want to be responsible stewards of your donations, whatever they might be. By registering your wish to donate an item, you can rest assured that we will only call if it is really needed — and you don’t have to wonder whether your charitable effort was wasted.” That message really hit home with people, and I think it enhanced our overall stewardship position within the community.

We also used the e-mail and webpage to explain our policies about donations, as well as the sorts of things we might could use versus the things we could not accept second-hand. That in itself did more to educate the community than anything else. In the end, we had more than 170 bona-fide offers of goods and services that people registered with us — and we availed ourselves of a few of those offers.

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