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'We Are Collectively Facing An Image Crisis Of Global Proportions'

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Ray Jones | UPI

The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership is defending its decision to approve funds for “crisis communications” in response to the unrest in Ferguson.

In a letter to members of the St. Louis County Council,Partnership CEO Denny Coleman wrote that the press coverage of our region in the aftermath of Brown’s death “has been unprecedented and almost uniformly negative.” He went on to say that “we are collectively facing an image crisis of global proportions.”

“To put this in perspective, in the last 52 days there have been more than 88,000 news stories nationally and internationally that resulted in more than 100 billion media impressions,” Coleman said. “Ferguson has become synonymous with St. Louis and St. Louis with Ferguson. These two names have been used interchangeably and it has had an immediate effect on economic development efforts. In the weeks that followed the riots in Ferguson, several companies put large business expansion plans on hold.

“As the lead economic development organization for St. Louis city and county, addressing this problem is one of our core responsibilities,” he added.

Before Brown's shooting death, the Partnership had contracted with Elasticity "to understand the needs of north county from a public relations standpoint." It later approved a $100,000 "crisis communications" plan with the company to respond to the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death. Criticism of that allocation became pronounced after some of it – about $24,000 -- went to public relations strategist Devin James, who was acting as a subcontractor.

In the days after Brown’s death, James was handling Ferguson’s public relations – and being paid by the Partnership. The partnership fired him after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailed a past conviction for reckless homicide. He’s still working with the city even after the partnership cut him loose.

Coleman wrote the agency is “working on several large-scale business expansion projects that could mean thousands of new jobs in St. Louis.” That includes expansions of Emerson and Centene’s footprint in Ferguson as well as Boeing’s decision to bring 500 new jobs to Berkeley.

“It has never been more critical to expertly communicate with these major employers,” Coleman said. “Our goal is to tell the world the full story of the St. Louis region, not just the small clips they have seen on the news.”

In response to the letter, St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, expressed skepticism about whether the funds were appropriate. He called the appropriation “a completely ineffective usage of tax dollars.” 

“There’s nothing in this letter that establishes or demonstrates the money allocated or the money spent is in any way going to change the situation in Ferguson. There’s nothing in there that does it,” said Stenger, who is the Democratic nominee for St. Louis County executive. “The most high-profile item that came out of this whole situation was the apology from the chief of Ferguson – which I think in and of itself was not effective. And, you know, has no demonstrable impact on economic impact in Ferguson or the surrounding area.”

Impact on jobs and investment

In an interview, Coleman said national and international coverage of Ferguson “obviously could impact economic development projects, especially in north county – but for the entire region.” 

Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton
Credit Parth Shah | St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, questioned the partnership's decision to allocate money for "crisis communications."

“We weren’t doing this just for Ferguson. We weren’t doing this just for St. Louis County but for the entire St. Louis region,” Coleman said. “Because it does impact jobs and investment and talent attraction and anything to do with our economic future. So that’s why we thought it was important to do.”

Coleman said the Partnership thought it was appropriate to give Ferguson some “assistance for some level of crisis management,” primarily because “Ferguson had been totally unprepared for this kind of thing.”

“They’re a small city. They’re not used to dealing with this, obviously. And so some help might mitigate some of that onslaught of national and international media,” Coleman said. “We have no thoughts that it’s enough money or enough effort to repair the international damage to our reputation. That is going to have to come at a later date.”

That process, Coleman said, is going to require a coordinated effort involving other economic development agencies – including the St. Louis Regional Chamber and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

“That’s a longer term project. It’s going to cost more money,” he said. “This fairly modest amount of money was meant only to try to deal with crisis management.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.