Is the San Francisco clean-up just a cover-up?

December 4, 2023

San Francisco once had a reputation people would kill for. It was the city of the future, chock full of beautiful landmarks, leading technology companies, and a promise to take care of the poor and downtrodden. And for a brief shining moment earlier this month, that city existed once again, when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit convinced local leaders they should finally invest in cleaning up feces-filled streets, fixing potholes, and policing crime-ridden neighborhoods.

But just like a business that tries to compensate for a toxic work environment with big Christmas bonuses, nobody’s fooled. Everyone knows that a return to feces is right around the corner. That’s especially true for San Francisco’s core audience: not big shots who are here and gone, but local citizens and taxpayers who live in the city every day.

Here are the blocking-and-tackling basics that the City Council missed in its effort to change San Fran’s brand.

Covering up the problem makes everything worse

For three brief years, Sam Bankman-Fried was the darling of…well, practically everyone. He was President Joe Biden’s second-biggest donor in 2020, a leader in the growing crypto industry, and an easy target for exciting features about the future of business and philanthropy.

Now, SBF is a felon, ready to head to jail for 110 years. Because even billions of dollars couldn’t cover up his fraud forever.

The same principle applies to San Francisco. The city did more in a few months to clean up problems than it had for years. It generated some good headlines and probably made international leaders happy. But just as SBF’s foundation was shaky, so is the city’s reputation, unless it can prove that the new San Francisco is going to stay.

Cover-ups – whether of fraud or potholes – don’t last. The truth always comes out.

Consistent quality is better than one big success

Many CEOs want their brand to appear in the Wall Street Journal and on CNBC. It feels good to have 15 minutes of fame and receive accolades. That’s probably what it felt like to be both a citizen and a leader of San Francisco this month.

But one major media hit, or one major client, doesn’t make a successful company or brand. All it means is that you have a piece of good news – one that can’t replace long-term, consistent success.

The same local citizens who felt good about seeing their pristine streets and sidewalks instead of feces and needles probably would have preferred that over and over again for the last few years. They felt safe with the police spending time in problem areas – and they probably want that safety consistently.

Don’t forget your core audience

Long before she was a presidential candidate, Nikki Haley was on Boeing’s board of directors. She departed that board in 2020, claiming that the company should not seek a government bailout or assistance from The Federal Reserve.

Her departure made major headlines in conservative media, but it didn’t seem to garner much reaction from Boeing. That’s because while Haley wanted to impress future primary voters and donors, Boeing was focused on securing billions from the Fed.

San Francisco should have followed Haley’s lead (if not her politics) because its efforts to impress big-money politicians has left local citizens disgusted. Taxpayers tired of seeing homeless people on the street, and the homeless people themselves shared similar concerns with The New York Times that they were being ignored for the sake of conference attendees. These are the people San Francisco should have first kept in mind.

San Fran’s new brand opportunity 

Few cities get opportunities for big resets to reverse reputational narratives. Any Rust Belt ghost town would try to leverage an APEC-like event to springboard a communal rejuvenation. But without leadership willing to capitalize, the picturesque San Francisco we’ve enjoyed seeing again for the past few days will likely return to its old “new normal.”

This piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at American Business Magazine.

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