My job before graduate school was pretty daunting. With a small team of urban believers, I had to convince a skeptical metropolitan population that the city at its center—despite its dismal public image—was worth visiting.
It wasn’t easy. During one of my first official meetings, an executive at a large, international organization told us he just wasn’t in a position to help us improve his employees’ perceptions of New Haven, even though his headquarters were downtown. “To be honest,” he told us, “the joke around here is that we should just bulldoze the place and start over. It’d make parking a lot easier for us.”
He laughed. We left.
He wasn’t the only one in on the joke. Despite the city’s strengths, what connected people to New Haven was an unshakable cynicism, not unlike when you’re stuck in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles and you bond with the guy next to you over how long it’s taking. With shared expectations so low, the only New Haven stories people truly believed had to end with a robbery, a failed business, or a parking ticket.
That’s what happens when no other narrative exists: people connect their own dots and share their own stories. Accuracy takes a back seat to believability, so if the prevailing sentiment is cynicism, it’s the negative stories that take on a life of their own. The same thing can happen for companies in a crisis, particularly if morale is low.
As Carol Coletta says, “the power of the narrative is everything.” So in New Haven, we focused on giving people a new language to describe their hometown. And by language, I don’t mean new slogans—nothing rings more hollow than an overwrought tag line. Our vocabulary had to embrace New Haven’s flaws—we called them “quirks”—to portray a scrappy, unvarnished but dynamic place with a heap of potential and a dash of bravado.
As we shared this new, authentic language, we had to let others assemble it into their own voices. That was perhaps the hardest part—letting go. We had to be confident that our stories were true and compelling enough to live on their own, whether shared word-of-mouth or uploaded to the spin cycles of Facebook and Twitter.
What was the result? I’ll let you decide. But when you visit New Haven, do me a favor: shop locally and spend lots of money.