R.I. group launches initiative to bolster state confidence

The campaign focuses both on growing local industries and personal stories of success

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., joined with the Rhode Island Foundation last week for a three-city tour in an effort to raise Rhode Island’s self-esteem as a part of the “It’s All in Our Backyard” campaign.

The campaign stems from a partnership between the Foundation and media consulting firms Basics Group and Myranda Group following the Foundation’s 2012 “Make it Happen RI” conference, which gathered 300 private sector leaders to brainstorm how to improve the state’s economy. One of the major themes from the conference was the state’s “lack of self-esteem,” according to the campaign’s website,

Despite Rhode Island’s struggles with a high unemployment rate and a lagging high school graduation rate, the Foundation hopes to increase focus on the state’s nascent industries, strong entrepreneurship, universities and art scene, according the the campaign’s site.

At its core, the campaign is a media blitz of stories focusing on success in Rhode Island, such as Cheryl Merchant, the CEO of Hope Global, and Jeffrey Morgan, a University researcher and inventor of a technique that improved petri dish manufacturing.

Campaign organizers are looking to increase tourism as one way to stimulate the economy. Chris Barnett, senior public affairs officer at the Foundation, said a high percentage of annual meetings and conventions held in the state are held here “because Rhode Islanders are members of a trade organization, and recommend that they hold their conventions here.” The  idea behind the campaign is that citizens will be “more willing to be advocates for conventions and annual meetings in Rhode Island if they feel better about Rhode Island,” Barnett said.

“Personally, I find this campaign silly, for lack of a better word,” wrote Leonard Lardaro, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, in an email to The Herald.

Lardaro said the state has previously run positive advertising to bolster tourism, but the state’s particular tourism industry, which is geared toward less-profitable day trips and the state’s beaches, constrains success. Other states, such as Michigan and New Jersey, that have run similar successful programs did not face the same constraints because tourism to these states involves longer trips. And those states already had more profitable tourism industries, Lardaro said.

“Unfortunately,” Lardaro said, “Rhode Island is known as well for its unemployment rate as for its beaches.”

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Foundation, wrote an op-ed in the Providence Journal earlier this month that restated the initiative’s goals to lower the unemployment rate to the national average, to raise the median household income level to those of Connecticut and Massachusetts and to close income, unemployment and education gaps.

But Lardaro said the larger problem is the state’s “elected officials are either unwilling or unable to really generate effective solutions.”

“It would be extremely difficult to measure the effect of the campaign, either positive or negative,” Lardaro said, adding that even if certain industries and sectors of the economy started to improve, it would be difficult to judge whether the improvement resulted from  the campaign or other policies.

Barnett said the Foundation is closely monitoring how many hits the site gets, and the media ratings its commercials receive in order to continually assess progress.

The campaign is largely funded by the Foundation, with $150,000 of its $170,000 budget coming from the Foundation, with the remaining funds coming from private donations, according to an article in Nonprofit Quarterly. Companies such as Cox Communications, Verizon and Clear Channel Media also contributed “tens of thousands of dollars worth of media space,” Barnett said.

“I think (the campaign) can potentially work. It just needs to be better funded,” said Rob Horowitz, a strategy and communications consultant, adding that an effective media campaign would need “a fair amount of repetition and a fair amount of money.”

Both Horowitz and Lardaro said the Foundation is engaged in beneficial work for Rhode Island, and the idea behind the campaign is well-intentioned.

“The whole idea behind Backyard is to convince people that the glass is far from empty,” Barnett said, adding that those concerned about the campaign’s ability to fund itself should donate.

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