Whitewater, Wisconsin’s Innovation Center: The Limits of Photography

I wrote on Friday, in a post entitled, About that Public Hearing… (Part 2), that one could

show how a recent announcement about Whitewater’s Innovation Center isn’t merely ineffective, but counter-productive, to the interests of that project’s proponents. I’m a critic of the project, and there are times when I think: I wish proponents would publish more announcements, as their notices about the project are so inartful, odd, and self-defeating…

My post was scheduled for Saturday, but it’s a few days late. I’ve been searching for the best way to describe how public relations, marketing, and boosterism fail. There’s an example that comes to mend, but first, the latest description of the Innovation Center’s progress.

A few men, officials and board members supporting a multi-million dollar office building at public expense, stand wearing construction vests and helmets, on top of their coats and ties, as they smile for the camera while real construction workers labor in the background. The men in the photo look mostly alike, and nothing like a fair representation of all Whitewater’s residents.

The captions accompanying the photo, and a few others, mention an “upper facade of large entry and meeting area.” They mention this as though it were a good thing, apparently unaware how it all sounds to ordinary people.

It’s an expensive public project, relying on a publicly-funded anchor tenant, drawing the public employees of the anchor tenant from another struggling town, offering no concrete value to justify the multi-million dollar cost, failing to meet simple, clear federal standards in competition for a federal grant, and that serves as a distraction from serving the real needs of Whitewater’s many poor residents and struggling, small businesses.

The only way a project could be more ill-suited to Whitewater would be if the Tech Park Board announced a unicorn-breeding program for all the office space they’ve yet to fill with productive, private businesses.

I’m sure that everyone connected with the project has a thousand reasons that these photos and captions — like so many fawning press stories before them — make sense: A picture is worth a thousand words, stay on message, accentuate the positive, emphasize community leaders, etc., etc. There may be thousands of variations, the subjects of tens of thousands of books, essays, seminars, and consultants’ reports, from nationally-known experts on public relations, marketing, advertising, and communications.

And yet, descriptions like this are self-defeating, and mere merely show how ill-conceived the project is.

Why don’t so many experts behind the project understand as much?

Because all this boosterism ignores what Whitewater’s really like, what’s important to help Whitewater’s residents’ actual needs, and flies in the face of simple, enduring principles of governance.

It’s easy to lose one’s way when one loses sight of what a town’s like, and what it needs.

Decades ago, men (and women) more experienced and renowned that the men supporting the Innovation Center project made a mistake far greater.

Here’s that mistake:

To answer questions about then-Governor Dukakis’s commitment to a strong defense, his advisers had him visit a defense contractor and ride in a tank. He looked odd riding there, and the Republicans seized on the photo opportunity to create a commercial that showed Dukakis riding in a tank.

The Democrats’ effort was counter-productive. Instead of focusing on what Dukakis offered, in a simple way, his campaign tried a too-clever-by-half photo opportunity to answer concerns about defense policy. Perhaps a picture is worth a thousand words, but it’s only useful if it’s the right picture, about sensible concerns.

The Dukakis campaign should have stuck to what Dukakis did well, and how what he did well would be useful, and appealing, to America. It’s not lack of talent, but lack of perspective, that led his campaign down the wrong path.

Fancy projects are Whitewater’s wrong path. They don’t fit our needs; they can’t be made sensible, appealing, or impressive.

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