Cover-ups Don’t Work: PR Lessons From San Francisco’s Clean-up

December 11, 2023

Last month, San Francisco’s leadership failed perhaps the most basic of PR tests: They tried to put lipstick on a pig and pretend it wasn’t a hog.

The city known for squalor, a housing crisis and retail crime tried to reclaim its lost City of Love moniker by pushing homeless people off the street, cleaning feces off those same streets, and policing high-crime areas. The goal was to present a clean, well-run city for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, which was bringing international leaders and $500 million to the city.

The goal was achieved. Unfortunately, it came after years of mismanagement and excuses to residents that nothing could be done. This meant that a City of Love reboot narrative flopped, as media outlets across the country ran critical story after story about the clean-up. One presidential candidate even used a nationally televised debate to slam the city as prioritizing “communist dictators” over taxpaying residents.

The lesson is obvious. Cover-ups don’t work. And here are a few others that San Francisco’s leaders failed to recognize in the lead-up to the Summit.

  1. Lipstick on a pig is still a pig. Great PR is built on truth, proven facts, past success, and believable future projections. Without that firm foundation, PR is just unbelievable spin.
  2. The most trusted and influential media gatekeepers aren’t likely to take big stories at face value. This is true even if they’re on your “side” of an issue. They’ll want context and data. Even the left-leaning New York Times’ story about the clean-up prioritized past failures and residents’ criticism, giving the famously left-leaning city a black eye in one of the world’s biggest papers.
  3. Core audiences come first. China’s dictator and America’s president brought famous people and a lot of cash to San Francisco during the Summit. But they were gone in days, leaving residents wondering why their pleas went ignored for years. And those residents are going to make their voices heard in the press, on social media, on the streets, and in the ballot boxes.
  4. PR is a long game. Shiny objects are great, but they fade quickly. What will stick in people’s minds is the slow drip of everyday news. And that becomes the narrative.
  5. Don’t create unnecessary crises. People will easily forgive mistakes and the imperfect. They will take longer to forgive perceived or actual deception or intentional neglect.

San Francisco can’t gaslight its way out of its years-long, self-inflicted brand crisis. City leaders need to go back to the crisis communications drawing board, because rebuilding trust is going to take years.

This piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at PR News Online.

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