Generally, there are two types of publicity. One is the kind you actively cultivate. Local tourism officials go to great lengths to get the word out about the city of Columbus, its history and attractions. Those efforts provide key elements for both our culture and economy.
The second type of publicity comes unsolicited and often unexpected. Its impact on the larger world’s perception of the city depends on the nature the publicity.
Cities the size of Columbus rarely get either type of notoriety. Recently, though, Columbus is popping up on Internet news feeds and national magazines, sometimes to the benefit of the community, sometimes to its detriment.
A couple of years ago, James Fallows, author and national correspondent for The Atlantic, set out on a tour of the country with his wife, Deborah, in their single-engine aircraft. The series of stories, blog posts and radio segments focused attention on America’s small cities and towns in an effort to discover the economic realities of the America that rarely captures national notice.
Among the places James and Deborah visited on their cross-country jaunt was Columbus. James wrote about the area’s surprising industrial and manufacturing revival. Deborah, meanwhile, was captivated by the city’s educational jewel known as the Mississippi School for Math and Science.
What might have naturally been expected to be a one-time look at the area has become a recurring theme in the Fallows’ series. Two years later, they are still writing and blogging about Columbus.
It is the sort of publicity you simply can’t buy.
Unfortunately, the city has also been the recent subject of the kind of publicity you can’t buy and wouldn’t want to buy.
When Columbus resident Rick Ball died in an officer-involved shooting death on Oct. 17, it rocked the city.
These kinds of incidents, by their nature, are sure to invite scrutiny. Only until recently, did that kind of news evoke much national interest. Typically, they are local and regional stories.
But the context has changed. Officer-involved deaths in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, among others, are no longer viewed in isolation. For some, each incident is viewed as possibly being part of a larger national narrative.
Even so, Ball’s shooting death likely would never have hit the national radar were it not for a lethargic, tight-lipped response by city leaders compounded by sloppy handling of the evidence, including the presence of two, seemingly contradictory incident reports that were distributed to separate media.
As a result, what might have been regarded as a tragic incident has become fodder for those who see something sinister in how the case has been handled, casting doubt on the credibility of local officials, and by extension, reflecting poorly on the entire community.
Suddenly, the local/regional story has found a national audience. The Guardian U.S., the American edition of the international newspaper The Guardian, has featured the story, focusing on perceived discrepancies on the city’s official accounts of the shooting and giving voice to those in the community who believe officials are conspiring to suppress the “real story” of what happened to Ricky Ball.
Other national media have also been attracted, including the New York Daily News. Countless other TV and newspapers have featured wire service or affiliate reports on their websites.
Some day, though not any day in the immediate future, the Ball story will be resolved and Columbus will again retreat to the shadows, as far as national attention goes.
Some day, our city will again capture national attention.
Let’s hope its more “The Atlantic” sort of publicity than “The Guardian” variety.