Perceptions are Reality: Memphis Needs to Tell Its Own Story

June 4th, 2012   •   8 comments   

If you are my client or you read my blog, you will know that my firm’s tagline is “Tell your story or someone else will do it for you.” I have blogged about this for years and as a public relations professional, I see it everyday in the trenches. I tell my clients that good, bad or ugly, we have to get the message out. Social media has been a game changer for many and is why telling your story is even more important than ever before.

Memphis as a whole needs to do a better job at telling its story. I have written a lot about what we need to do as a city (see my op-ed three years ago here) so as an update, here’s what I would do if I were tasked with improving PR for our community:

1. Define a clear strategy and vision for our airport and communicate it. Unfortunately—although work is being done to try and recruit other airlines to Memphis International—perceptions have become reality. In addition, the national media is comparing us to cities like Cincinnati and St. Louis who have also lost airline service. WE NEED TO SHOUT TO THE WORLD THAT WE ARE UNIQUE! We can’t let someone else “classify” us, right? If there is behind the scenes work taking place but nobody knows it, the assumption largely becomes that nothing is getting done. Never in my 25 years of working here have I felt such a ground swell of frustration by both businesses and individuals.

Putting a one million dollar incentive on this effort is certainly a plus, but in my opinion it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a something that needs surgery. The strategy and vision of the Airport Authority is not clear. We are allowing Delta Airlines to tell our story and now—in today’s news—we learn that the threat of Pinnacle Airlines (headquartered here in the renovated One Commerce Square) being lured to Minneapolis is real. What are Southwest’s plans? Are there plans for them to be here (or any other airline for that matter) or are we stuck with a nice airport with no choice for economic flights? I think that the tough questions aren’t being addressed publicly.

2. Fix the schools and fix them fast. I know it’s not simple, but it’s vital. Do you think a surgeon says, “This is really a problem and it might take years to fix this” when someone is dying on the table? No. The surgeon does whatever he has to save a life. This is not a realistic analogy, but my point is that there is a sense of urgency in a do-or-die situation. We need actions and we need them now. Memphians need to stop fighting each other and band together to help fix every school—we’re all in this together. If we don’t wake up and realize that we swim in a global fish tank, we’re going to get flushed!

3. Let’s hear more straight talk. Be constructive and be critical while being considerate at the same time. It is short sighted to lash out at someone who is merely stating his or her opinion. Our political system is not working and our elected leaders need to take a few steps backwards and listen to what businesses and individuals are saying, rather than their own personal agendas. For the record, any public official that cannot manage her or his own finances should NOT be empowered to help run the city.

3. Focus on revenue and we can fix most everything else. Money is not the key to happiness but it sure makes solving problems easier. Clear and simple: economic development must be on the front burner everyday. Run Memphis like a business and look for ways to create more jobs (real ones) and move people in to our city. If we can’t balance a budget, we can’t expect to grow and add the services we need as a community. So, we need a new financial strategy to go along with a new message for the fiscal fitness of our river town. Are we shrinking? Do we have enough services to support the taxpayers? Raising taxes might be the easy thing to do but not the smartest thing to do. If we don’t give people reasons to stay here, play here, recruit here, they’ll just vote with their feet.

4. Finally, we need younger leadership in every non-profit, public service, boards, etc. If Memphis doesn’t promote younger, more diverse leaders in our city, it will be a great shame. It’s time for the good ole boys to admit this party ain’t working. I’m not talking about Republicans versus Democrats. I’m talking about people in leadership positions who are failing at getting the job done. Push our younger leaders into your organizations. Accept with gratitude their energy and mentor and help them. Where are our future leaders? Where are the women in influential positions? I am certainly not anti-age or anti-male; I have learned a lot from past and present leaders and respect many. I am a woman-owned business standing on the sidelines asking and supporting but getting the same old stories. We need new stories and new voices!

I believe in letting facts (rather than race, gender, religion, personalities, money, etc.) speak for themselves. I believe that if we had more objective analyses and less rhetoric, we could get to some of the key issues behind why we “can’t” and then develop solutions to execute how we CAN. Let’s get Memphis back on the track she deserves because if we don’t? People will vote with their feet. Thank you for reading this and I’d love your comments.

Note: Comments are moderated.


  1. James Ruffer says:

    I think these are all great points and I would only add that we need more than just ONE local leader to see that younger talent can make a huge difference. “We” in the tech community keep loosing some amazing talent because of our reputation and lack of funding. The “good ole boys” are too scared to allow us young guns to take the ball and just run. We have one of two leaders that agree with your views but lack the klout to get more leaders behind them.

    Question is how do you get these leaders to make a difference in everything you have written here? How do we “disrupt” our community to make it better? How do you get the support of the leaders with klout to put their neck out there?

  2. Amy Howell says:

    I think that’s the beauty of social media bringing issues to the viral Internet! If this post gets traction and gets young people weighing in, I think leadership must not only talk about it but act upon it. You can’t just say “young professionals we must keep you here in Memphis”. We must show them and everyone outside of Memphis that we are a team. Instead we act like a bunch of babies fighting over silly stuff. New media simply puts a spotlight on it, good and bad. Thanks James. Get your friends to comment!! This is a good conversation long overdue.

  3. Amy – While I don’t live in Memphis, your last point resonated with me as it relates to “my” town. WInston has so much potential but we can’t keep our post-college, 20-somethings here. They may stay for a little while, but they are out of here as soon as something comes along. We’re losing them to places as close as Raleigh and Charlotte. That “old boys” club and network is going to be the death of our growth. Until we start capitalizing on the strengths and current, up-to-date knowledge of our younger leaders, we’ll never be more than a post-tobacco mill town. Sad.

  4. Amy Howell says:

    Kristen: thank you for commenting! It’s certainly sad when you see this departure of young talent in a community. Our young people are our future! What leadership often misses is the fact that real power comes to those who empower others! Memphis is losing its tax base & people my age are saying they are here until they get kids out of high school & then moving! That’s the first real sign I’ve seen in my 25 years here. The sickening thing is that Memphis is really a great place but the insiders can’t see it & the politics alone make people tired & create this atmosphere that nobody good can win. We need more honesty, more straight talk, less good old boys & fresh thinking. Without it, we can’t move, grow, attract & retain. You can tell I’m just a wee bit passionate about it, huh? Thx!!

  5. Ashli Blow says:

    I could not agree more with #4 – as a recent college graduate, I am an advocate for young leadership in Memphis because our generations is familiar with online tools that push a story locally and nationally. With the help of experience professionals that have been in a non-profit, public service, or boards – our city could have teams have a perfect balance of traditional and innovative methods and strategies. However, it takes good teachers and good schools (which is why I agree with #2) to help develop and educate these upcoming leaders.

  6. Amy Howell says:

    Thank you Ashli! Refreshing to hear from young people and keep up the good work!!

  7. marty wright says:

    great article, and similar to the one I wrote on last week. much is going on, much is happening, the leaderships have changed to some degree, the greater memphis chamber is reorganized some, and the new appointee to the DDC has been in place approximately a bit over a year. But what is changing? where are we going? what should we be behind? what is some of the young blood got on the front and back burners. little information comes out to the citizens, and it seems that it is more important to keep the few things that are newsworthy, empirical, and hard news items, are the ones that leadership wants to keep under wraps. time continues to go byl without up dates. people continue to be discouraged. and the cycle continues. where are the developers that build the office buildings in a down town that is allegedly growing? when will the hotel rooms be ready for the conventions and meetings that are walking out of the front door of the convention, due to a lack of space. where is the urgency to get down town developers from other cities to invest in memphis, as they do in other major cities.

  8. Amy Howell says:

    Marty, I am sorry to just now be seeing this. You make excellent points. I have said to our leadership over the last 10 years that we need to be a “buyer” town, not a “seller” town. We’ve sold off all of our great, Memphis, homegrown companies. Think about the Memphis-based companies here vs. 20 years ago? It’s not rocket science. And one of my big points. I have tried telling people this but they’d rather focus on stuff like renaming parks and other drama.

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