Manifesto for place branding and citizen governance

My training is in public administration, yet I study place branding and marketing.

When attending conferences, this usually leads to people looking at me funny and asking me some variant of this question: “So how is that public administration?”

Perhaps a brief introduction to my background will help answer that – and help put it to rest in public administration research circles. While doing my doctoral studies, I worked for the City of Coral Springs, Florida. I grew up there and worked for the Communications and Marketing Department while I was in high school.

I went back to work for the city because I believe in the mission of government. I believe that government can do well, despite challenges. I watched as a department of ten people told the city’s story. Coral Springs had – and still has – everything from its own website and magazine to social media and even a television station. In other words, the city’s message is communicated through myriad channels to locals and potential stakeholders alike.

It was through observing my environment that I began to think about what was happening in other cities. I began poking around online and saw that while some cities had departments as robust as ours, others struggled to tell their story. I proposed a paper for a class about ‘cities as public relations and marketing firms’ and what that means for public administration.

That short paper turned into a dissertation project (and later into books and academic publications) where I developed a theory of the effects of place branding and marketing campaigns on cities. Much published research examined how to run campaigns well, so I wanted to add something to the conversation by creating a theory of cities through Baudrillard’s phases of the image (Zavattaro, 2012).

Put simply: cities could end up talking to themselves if they constantly market and promote rather than engage in meaningful conversations with stakeholder groups. To people studying tourism and regular readers of Placesbrands, this is not a new revelation. To people studying public administration, this idea of stakeholder engagement certainly isn’t new either. So what can we do to bridge this disconnect between place branding and public administration?

One answer relies on emerging research that shows how place branding and marketing can become key governance strategies, especially at the local level. Governance, as used in public administration research, indicates a shift from top-down, government-imposed policies and practices to a mode of governance that involves bottom-up, citizen-driven initiatives.

Using a governance strategy, administrators act as facilitators to ensure the voices of residents, business owners, and other stakeholders are included in decision-making processes. This inclusion is not always perfect. Residents may still feel marginalised or voiceless if there is a perception that what they say doesn’t matter.

This is exactly my argument when it comes to top-down place branding and marketing strategies. If citizens parrot back government-driven messaging organisations could end up ‘talking to themselves’ and not learning.

Existing research bears out this point. For example, Erik-Hans Klijn and his colleagues found that stakeholder engagement in place branding processes results in a clearer overall brand concept and attracts more of the locale’s target groups such as potential residents, visitors, business owners, or all three (Klijn et al, 2012).

If governments at all levels are moving toward place branding and marketing strategies, then how can we bridge the gap noted above? I offer the following points to show that place branding and marketing ARE the same as public administration and management.

First, two simple words: taxpayer dollars. Personally, my interest is largely in city government entities deploying place branding and marketing strategies. Those local government employees are, of course, public employees spending taxpayer dollars to fund policy decisions.

Necessarily, there is more transparency and accountability when it comes to public spending. The bottom line is this: if local governments are spending taxpayer dollars on these practices, then we need to better understand causes, effects, and measures of success.

Second, destination-marketing organisations (DMOs) such as convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) or chambers of commerce, are public or quasi-public entities. These are public managers. We can employ the same logic as above to argue that we need to use more theories from public management to understand how and why these managers do what they do, especially when resources are constrained.

My own research has found that managers in DMOs have to prove why they even exist to local stakeholders (citizens of their cities, mostly). This education process takes away from time they can spend marketing the city – which is often a legal mandate of CVBs that use hospitality taxes to fund branding and marketing efforts.

Local government officials don’t need to prove why they exist, so researchers can focus on this unique group of administrators to find out more about their daily operations and barriers.

Finally, if public organisations move toward ‘running like a business’ as was – and remains – popular in the 1990s globally, then why is it surprising that place branding and marketing are now the chief ways for governments to engage stakeholders? Branding and marketing are commonplace in private organisations, with the trend increasing in public and even nonprofit organisations. As Philip Kotler has argued, every organisation needs to tell a story, especially when competing for scarce resources.

Taxpayer dollars are scarce. Vacation dollars are scarce. Donation dollars are scarce. Branding and marketing are ways to involve stakeholders in governance strategies that often serve as antidotes to top-down, business-driven decisions in public organisations.

I recently attended a public administration conference where I explained to a colleague that I study place branding and marketing. He was the first one to say: “Good. We don’t know enough about it.”

Perhaps there’s a shift in the field, and governance can begin to serve as a link to make the study and application of place branding and marketing more acceptable in public administration and management circles.

By Staci M. Zavattaro, Ph.D.

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