If a friend has a piece of food noticeably stuck in his teeth, you’d tell him, right?
Or would you rather that he go through his day oblivious to the fact that there’s a chunk of green something from lunch lodged between his front two teeth, and that every time he opens his mouth people cringe?
So, I’ll be blunt: “Toledo, you have an image problem.”
And it’s not just me saying that.
It’s having “Toledo” and “dangerous water” repeated in the same sentence over and over on the national airwaves and in phone calls from distant relatives wondering if you’re safe.
As far as conjuring positive publicity for our fair city, last weekend’s water crisis didn’t help the cause, acknowledges Richard Nachazel, president of Destination Toledo, Inc., which helps market the city.
“[But] we’ve had the algae problem for years,” he said. “And [the water industry] every year talked with legislators about what was happening to Lake Erie. Eleven million residents not only get their drinking water” from the lake, “but enjoy recreational and leisure activities.
“Hopefully ... the rest of the world will see the importance of the lake and its impact not only on the residents but to visitors as well.”
Nachazel’s correct in that last weekend’s crisis that left 500,000 residents without drinking water was a years-in-the-making wake-up call to the nation and world.
But the algae bloom in Lake Erie that produced a deadly toxin called microcystin is really only the latest in a string of bad publicity for a city in need of good press. Or perhaps you’ve forgotten:
The 2005 Nazi race riot and former Toledo mayor Carty Finkbeiner insulting an overweight teenager.
The October, 2010, shoot-out at the Route 66 Bar 7 grill or the 24-year-old woman who punched out a fast-food drive-through window because chicken nuggets weren’t being served.
All of these are unflattering moments that generated unwanted media buzz. And that’s difficult for a city the size of Toledo to overcome, said Bob Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture.
“Toledo is one of those places that doesn’t have a whole bunch of images to dilute [negative] things,” he said. “If you hear a bunch of negative things that happen in New York or Las Vegas or New Orleans or Los Angeles, they are diluted by the millions of other impressions that are constantly present in these places.
“But Toledo is a whole different story. Not a whole lot of people who don’t live in northern Ohio know much about Toledo at all,” he said. “You hear a story about Toledo and that’s all you know about Toledo.”
“Can you turn around a national identity doing that? No, I don’t think that’s possible to do,” Thompson said. “But these campaigns have value because it says your city hasn’t given up yet. I think those things are useful exercises in certain places, announcing that you’re just not rolling over.”
On the bright side of #emptyglasscity — as the crisis came to be known on Twitter — the national media didn’t find and report rioting in the streets and rampant looting. There were no raging fires or demolished cars — the kinds of activities most often seen when a team wins a national championship — that make for stirring visuals. Just green algae and lines of people waiting mostly patiently to buy bottled water.
Former Toledoan P. J. O’Rourke also chimed in with a column for The Daily Beast — http://thebea.st/1y9EMxK — in which he praised the city’s toughness: “Exposure to microcystin results in abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness, and dizziness.
Or, as we Toledoans call it, ‘Monday Morning.’”
Tough. Resourceful. And we don’t riot.
Now that’s an image and hashtag for the city to build on.
And it’s certainly more pro-Toledo than #dontdrinkthewater.
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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