Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Grand Rapids Should Market Its True Population, and Image

This week's Grand Rapids Business Journal asks in a page one article (subscription required) "Is it legal to market GR as being larger?"

Whenever someone asks is it "legal" my ethical red flags start to flutter.

At issue for the city of Grand Rapids is whether to tout itself as having a population of 602,622, which is the number of residents in Kent County. This would be as opposed to describing itself as having a population of 188,040, which is the number of human beings who live within the actual city limits.

This is a question?!

All of this is related to the ongoing One Kent Coalition debate about merging municipalities with Kent County as one larger and more marketable entity. If those who promote Grand Rapids say the city has more than 600,000 residents they would be in league with places like Boston and Baltimore. The idea is to attract employers and conferences to a city with a more impressive number.

Here's why they should not do so:

  • It's not true, not even "technically" so. Do I have to explain this more?
  • Long-term thinking is better. Fudging the numbers is short-term thinking that people will be attracted to Grand Rapids. Long-term thinking considers what happens when site planners, business leaders, convention planners and so on find out the 600,000 was the COUNTY and not the CITY? Probably they'll feel disappointment, have a sense of being swindled, and collectively experience the long-term reputation damage of Grand Rapids trying to present itself as something it's not. Saying that the numbers are "technically" true or "legal" to report that way mean nothing to someone who feels duped, and in fact add to the insult.
  • There are other sources of information. Government and business directories can easily give the true population figures. When objective and credible third-party information is that far off from marketing materials, it is not a good thing. 

A better idea would be to honestly state the facts and then give the context. The heart of the PRSA Code of Ethics is that PR enables "informed decision making"--not inflating the information. A marketing brochure or web site could indicate that the fact that the City of Grand Rapids has a population of 180,000 and then provide the context that the total population of Grand Rapids and surrounding suburbs and other areas in Kent County total more than 600,000. Copy could also address other factors beyond mere  numbers, such as quality of work force, education, accommodations, attractions and quality of life. Target publics would then be fully and honestly informed. Imagine that.

Honesty has long been said to be the best policy. It's also best in marketing and public relations, where long-term thinking and relationships yield the best return. That's why PR is about reflecting an actual image, not creating an illusory one. Those who promote Grand Rapids should think about that before they earn a bad reputation.