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PR Week salutes communications strategy behind Barclays Center and Atlantic Yards, cites "35 lawsuits"; Ratner's mantra: "We will figure it out"

In a 12/1/12 feature, PR Week reports, Game on at Brooklyn's Barclays Center: Leveraging Brooklyn's heritage and a celebrity superstar, the Barclays Center shoots and scores with effective comms. ("Comms" means "communications.)

They sure do, but that's partly because of a disengaged and manipulatable press. As a trade publication, PR Week chose to let the arena's spokesmen tout their successes, with nary a contrary word. Thus one major factual error was published, with other passages worth some skepticism.

There are some interesting tidbits:
But make no mistake, everything else in the reception area, including large poster-size historical images of Brooklyn and coffee table books celebrating the region's history, reminds you that your feet are firmly planted in downtown Brooklyn...
The receptionist is very patient. It's not the first time someone has called to speak to Brooklyn native Jay-Z, the celebrity hip-hop mogul who is a part owner of the team.
While his financial investment is relatively small, Jay-Z has generated a lot of PR buzz with his hands-on approach, participating in press conferences, famously kicking off the opening of the center with a series of sold-out concerts, and helping design the uniforms, logo, and brand identity for the new-look Nets.
Shouldn't a PR publication fact-check claims by Nets/arena CEO Brett Yormark that Jay-Z was "creator" of the logo, not merely a helper?

The Dan Klores connection

PR Week reports:
The story that leads up to the building of the center began almost 10 years ago. Bruce Ratner, chairman and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies, shared his vision of buying the then New Jersey Nets and moving them to a new arena he was going to build in downtown Brooklyn with DKC agency head Dan Klores. It would be the largest development project in the borough's history.
Part of the agency team assigned to work on the project was Barry Baum, who as a kid growing up in Brooklyn was rarely without a basketball in his hand. He was a ballboy for the New York Knicks and later a sports writer for theNew York Post. Ratner subsequently hired Baum from DKC to work with Forest City Ratner, the Nets, and Barclays Center at the end of 2004 after the sale of the team had gone through.
Shouldn't such a connection, however much Klores himself is no longer part of his eponymous firm, merit disclosure in the bio attached to Klores' September essay for the New York Times Sport section?

The reversible jersey gambit

PR Week portrays Baum as smiling about "promoting unique initiatives,” such as free reversible jerseys, with opposing stars, in 2009.

Baum acknowledges criticism, but says, "We needed to ride the coattails of other great players.”

But it didn't just generate criticism, it provoked derision.

Dealing with skepticism

PR Week reports:
The organization also had to contend with considerable skepticism surrounding the project. Brooklyn hadn't had a team since 1957 when the Dodgers left for the West Coast. There were concerns over traffic congestion, displacing residents, and Forest City Ratner needed to rethink some elements of the project when faced with the recession. Changes included swapping out original architect Frank Gehry with Shop Architects and Aecom. And every change necessitated proactive messaging.
So, says DKC Managing Director Joe DePlasco, "Our message was about why these changes were made and how they did not change the initial vision of Atlantic Yards or the commitments made.”

What about Bruce Ratner repudiating the ten-year timeline to build the project previously endorsed by his company and the state?

How many lawsuits?

The article states:
“Over nine years there were 35 different suits brought against us,” adds Baum. “A lot of people in the community were against the project. That's no secret. There were a lot of steps over the last nine years that were challenging.” Forest City Ratner was successful in 34 out of 35 suits.
That's incorrect on two fronts. There weren't 35 different lawsuits--rather, closer to ten.

There may have been 35 different legal decisions. However, if we're counting legal decisions, Forest City Ratner and the state lost at least four--all part of same case calling for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate the community impacts of a potential 25-year buildout.

The Ratner strategy: "we will figure it out"

PR Week reports:
“Bruce was never going to relent,” notes Baum. “He was determined. Every Tuesday morning at a meeting with the top people at Forest City he would end the meeting with ‘Don't worry, we will figure it out.' He gave everyone a lot of confidence. You never stopped believing because of him.”
‘Don't worry, we will figure it out.' 

Credit Ratner with significant adaptability--not just the above-mentioned changes but 2009 renegotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Empire State Development, renegotiations that relied in part on compliant agencies controlled by project-supporting politicians.

The recent media strategy

PR Week reports:
“The strategy from groundbreaking to the day we opened was bringing media in on a regular basis to make sure they understood the progress being made,” explains Baum. “We let people know what's happening here and why it's going to be great for Brooklyn and got a lot of coverage. Brett would use that as a marketing tool to drive sales, whether it was tickets or sponsorships.”
This is nothing radical, but it is explicit: positive coverage is a marketing tool.

There's nothing wrong with recognizing the positive, but those who offer cheerleading coverage, without recognizing the complexity, should know they're helping Yormark sell.

The early strategy

PR Week reports:
Early on, campaigns created a rallying cry around bring-ing a home team back to Brooklyn and focused messaging and activities around jobs, housing, and hoops. Players attended community events and spoke at schools. The arena entered into a community benefits agreement, a legal document that promises jobs and housing.
Those players highlighted earlier--notably Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson, then even Devin Harris--are long gone. That "legal document" has many holes in it.

Arena hiring

DePlasco says the new arena staffers, most without experience working at such a facility, "did a phenomenal job."

Well, they have been trained to be very cordial, but not all of them are doing such a great job if the arena--as it seems--is already hiring replacements.

Arena food

The involvement of Brooklyn food vendors has turned out just as they wanted:
It was an important element in the arena's experience and Baum wanted the news to take center court – his sights were set on The New York Times. “My goal was to get a story in the dining section,” he says. “I spent a long time crafting that food program pitch.”
Baum arranged for a Times reporter to meet Ratner, but the icing on the black-and-white cookie from Beigel's was when Baum arranged for the reporter and Ratner to be escorted around the entire concession concourse with the vendors open, owners standing outside their restaurants, and staff on hand to serve.
The tasting tour was a three pointer in media relations. The New York Times ran the story online first on September 21 to coincide with the arena's opening, ran in print on September 26 on the first page of the dining section, and again online the same day.
What next?

The article closes:
“We are focused on the future and communicating that the other parts of the project are important, if not more important,” says DePlasco. “That involves housing and all the jobs that go into building it.”
Those are construction jobs--which Forest City claims (and I'd like to see an independent assessment)--would be in the same number for modular construction as for conventional construction.

The once-promised 10,000 office jobs, and even the several thousand office jobs slated for the flagship tower over the arena place, are not part of the "comms" strategy.


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