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Decoding the Cleveland Prestige Machine 

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"Just last week, USA Today named us one of the top romantic spring getaways! I don't know how they conducted that survey, but we'll take it!" —Armond Budish, State of the County address, 2015.

Though Travel & Leisure or USA Today is unlikely to take note, Cleveland surely ranks among the top cities in the country, if not the world, for the quantity of butter available at press events.

Indeed, the butter was in abundant supply last month under the shade of a tent at Edgewater Park, where the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, the Cleveland Metroparks and the city of Cleveland jointly announced that Cleveland would play host to the USA Triathlon National Championships in 2018 and 2019. Nearly 6,000 athletes and 10,000 total visitors would descend upon Lake Erie's shores, reporters were told, injecting an estimated $6.5 million into the local economy.

"You could've went other places, but you chose us," said Mayor Frank Jackson, addressing the reps from USA Triathlon, skyline at his back. "Our job, our commitment, our purpose, is to ensure that you will have a successful event, that you will be able to say that Cleveland was the best event to that point.... When you come to Cleveland, you will be the centerpiece. We will wrap around you, and you will be the only event that we think about at that period of time."

David Gilbert of the Sports Commission and Brian Zimmerman of the Metroparks also gave brief remarks. Overall, the event was smooth, a real pro job at the hands of seasoned marketing personnel: A packet of information was provided with relevant names and numbers. Local triathletes, in full regalia, were available for comment. The air's crispness and the lake's high-def glisten both felt pre-programmed, Matrix-ish. The butter, to reiterate, was simply over-the-top.

But perhaps the most noteworthy portion of this otherwise humdrum announcement was a video that played before the official remarks. This was its public premiere. The video was a co-production of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and Destination Cleveland (both overseen by David Gilbert), and it may have been intended to get the reporters in a sufficiently booster-ish mood. Its job, its commitment, its purpose was to showcase some of the lists on which Cleveland has appeared over the past couple of years. Its title on YouTube, very much directly to the point, is: "GCSC Cleveland Accolades Video."

But "accolades" is an interesting term for Cleveland's appearance on many of these lists (Best Midwest Destination for Group Travelers, Best City to Go Car-Free, Underrated Cities for Art Lovers, Must-Visit Cities for Beer Connoisseurs, etc.), most of which are the result of readers' polls, freelancers' whims, or the public relations efforts of Destination Cleveland itself. It's not that these lists are illegitimate — they are part and parcel of a "high-metabolism" media landscape that preys on consumers, not readers, and caters to their short attention spans — it's that they tend to be overvalued, speciously "researched" and sometimes misinterpreted.

Author Melody Warnick, in a piece earlier this year about Pittsburgh's presence on "most livable city" lists (a piece that doubled as a concise history of promotional travel writing), told the City Paper that she felt these "click-baity" lists were largely for the benefit of the people who already lived in the city.

"I think it's rare that outsiders look at those lists and think, 'Hey I'm gonna move to Pittsburgh because it's a great town for beer-drinkers,' or whatever. I think the people who already live in Pittsburgh, you click on those links, you read those articles because you want confirmation that you're right. You live in a fantastic city."

David Gilbert told Scene that it'd be difficult to measure how effective the lists are as a tool for attracting visitors and events to Cleveland.

"But I look at them from the perspective that they're nice to have," he said. "If you have a publication like the LA Times or the New York Times calling Cleveland a Top 10 place to go, there's definitely some value because there's such a wide readership. It plants something in people's mind — 'There must be something there that I hadn't known about.'"

Gilbert acknowledged, though, that there is indeed additional value for locals.

"That's just as big a piece of the puzzle, and uniquely so in places like Cleveland," he said. "If you're in San Diego or Orlando, I don't know how much that validation really means. In places that have battled with perception issues, that validation means a lot more. Part of the reason — if not the most significant reason — that Clevelanders had been down on their own community for so long is that people from the outside talked about what a tough place it was. That took a toll."

***

Less so these days.

In the Cleveland entry of Thrillist's "Top 25 Cities to Spend a Weekend," visitors are invited to "walk pockets of town — Lakeview [sic], Ohio City, Tremont, and, perhaps the most literal and longstanding example, Coventry — exploding with new energy and old charm in tandem."

In the New York Post's "15 Best Places to Live" feature in 2016, we are told that the "formerly industrial" Detroit Shoreway neighborhood has become an arts district, and that Cleveland is "not just for hipsters: The city is also home to one of the country's top hospitals, the Cleveland Clinic, and Huntington Beach, the cleanest spot on Lake Erie."

Groups Today, in awarding Cleveland the "Best Midwest Destination" award in its annual readers poll, averred that "grit meets sophistication" in Northeast Ohio, "where experiences include ... hearing the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra perform live in the local hot dog joint."

In the freelancer-produced "10 Underrated Cities for Art Lovers" on U.S. News and World Report's blog, we learn that "there's much buzz about the recently opened Hilton Cleveland Downtown, which houses some of the most unique locally curated art in the city." (Alongside Cleveland, this list featured the distinguished underrated art hubs Cody, Wyoming; Des Moines, Iowa; Cape Coral, Florida, and Detroit.)

A 2016 Forbes piece, entitled "Why Cleveland is America's Hottest City Right Now," written by a freelance contributor and fiendishly shared locally, claimed Cleveland's "biomedical and 'smart' manufacturing start-ups are quickly luring America's youngest and brightest away from Boston, Austin, and Silicon Valley... which makes every Saturday night along East Fourth Street just north of Quicken Loans Arena look more like SoHo or South Beach than the 'Rust Belt' strip one might conjure up in their mind when someone says 'Cleveland.'"

In virtually every listicle, we hear of Cleveland's "innovative," "trendy," "exploding" culinary scene; we are reminded of the "world-renowned," "world-famous," "world-class" Cleveland Orchestra; we are told not to forget about the "beloved" Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In many of the listings, we hear about the preponderance of new hotels — the "terra cotta" Schofield Building that houses the Kimpton, for example — the unbelievable affordability of the region, and the hip aestheticization of "industry" "grit" and "old-world charm."

These characterizations are accurate to varying degrees. But the cumulative portrait is one curated by the travel and tourism industry (a growth industry in Cleveland over the past five years, to be sure. Earlier this month TourismOhio reported 212 million visits to the state in 2016, good for seven straight years of growth). No one regards these lists as "journalism" about Cleveland — these are not "studies" — but no one seems to identify them as what they more closely resemble: commercials. In them, Cleveland is a place where millennial heart surgeons pound pierogies and sip on microbrews while jamming to Springsteen and Tchaikovsky before playing some sunset beach volleyball and then retiring to their industrial lofts above Michael Symon BBQ joints.

And that's just fine if you're a Destination Cleveland publicist. But it's odd for the local political leadership to have so fully embraced this picture as credible evidence of Cleveland's resurgence, especially when the picture is so generic and the reporting is so flimsy.

"It's not just me being the cheerleader," County Executive Armond Budish said in his first State of the County address in 2015. "People all over are starting to substitute a new "R" word for the old one: When they speak of Cleveland, it's Renaissance, not Rust Belt. Fodor's, Travel & Leisure, and the New York Times all recognize we're one of the top places in the world to come to visit and spend some time. And just last week, USA Today named us one of the top romantic spring getaways! I don't know how they conducted that survey, but we'll take it!"

Not knowing how a survey was conducted, but taking it, is a decent representation of how this sort of positive press is received locally. In fact, the USA Today piece Budish mentioned, "Feel the love: Romantic Spring Getaway Ideas," wasn't a survey at all. Nothing was conducted. Nor did the piece purport to identify or rank "top" romantic getaways. In keeping with the digital imperative for quick, easy, clickable content, the piece merely presented a few harmless ideas. It was content produced for the USA Today network by a freelance writer, one who may have been courted by Destination Cleveland. A spokeswoman for the tourism bureau said they were targeting "Tier one publications like USA Today" in a 2015 interview with Scene.

In the piece, Cleveland appeared alongside Mendocino, California; St. George, Utah; and Dundee, Oregon. As in other lists, couples were apprised of Cleveland's "world-class orchestra, stunning art museum and revitalized neighborhoods." Here, the Westin hotel, not the Hilton downtown, was portrayed as the hottest art space in town, "with more than 1,500 pieces from local artists displayed inside."

***

"These rankings are crazy," said Robert Smith, a former economic development reporter for the Plain Dealer who spent two years in the media relations department at the Cleveland Clinic. "And they never make the print edition of these magazines. Forbes, every other month, is calling Cleveland the ugliest or the gloomiest. And you look at the criteria, and it's bullshit. There's no criteria at all! What drives me crazy is that then Cleveland.com runs with it, and now it's on a Google search, and then it's reality. 'Oh, Cleveland's the gloomiest city again.' And you're like, 'Judged by what?'"

Though Smith referred foremost to lists that put Cleveland in a negative light, he said the digital rankings look even more ridiculous when juxtaposed with thorough, sophisticated reporting projects like the U.S. News & World Report college and hospital rankings.

"That thing is huge for the Clinic," Smith said. "And it's a very good list. The criteria and the metrics are very impressive. Those rankings matter."

Not only is the ranking key for the hospital's prestige and self-perception, much like the city lists, the U.S. News ranking is a powerful marketing tool. Smith said that the hospital's annual performance in the rankings was among the top reasons why new patients chose Cleveland Clinic, right after doctor referrals and family or friend referrals.

And one of the reasons why the ranking is so important, Smith said, is because people understand that there is weight behind it. It's extraordinarily well-researched.

"When I joined the Clinic, the first thing I started to do was research that study because it's so important there," Smith said. "We sweat that thing. And there's no easy way to move up in the rankings. US News goes to specialists all over the country and they ask, if you had a real complicated case, what hospital would you send your patient to? It's a powerful endorsement. It's not, like, marketing. It's making sure doctors are aware of what Cleveland Clinic does. It's making sure you're represented at doctor conferences. It's making sure you're in magazines that doctors read. It's kind of a constant effort."

David Gilbert would no doubt classify his work to promote the region — "to grow the travel and tourism industry" — as a constant effort as well. Among other strategies, Destination Cleveland regularly pays for travel writers to come to Cleveland, to show off the city and its progress.

"For some of these rankings, quite frankly, we're the cause of them," Gilbert said. "We've shown up on lists where we've brought a particular travel writer. You can't pay to be on the list, but that's marketing. And here's the thing: We only have a very small amount that we purely spend on marketing. Bringing in travel writers, that's important public relations. It's really important for us to extend the message, and to have the ability to spend." (More on Destination Cleveland's future ability to spend in a moment.)

On this issue, there was a minor dust-up back in 2015. Some will remember when Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy penned a column about the Cavaliers' round one, game one victory over the Celtics at the Q, and the confetti-infused celebration thereafter.

"It seemed over the top," Shaughnessy observed of the celebration, "a little needy."

Shaughnessy's depiction of downtown as a "sad space" with "many vacant buildings and boarded-up stores," and of the local economy — "it feels like it runs on lottery tickets," — missed the mark, perhaps. And his illustration of a long-suffering fan-base had been a cliche for years. But his descriptions weren't malicious. In fact, he said he loved Cleveland. His sin, as interpreted by local boosters, was that he wasn't overly enthused about the city's renaissance, in particular the revitalized downtown. He had the audacity to mention, for example, foreclosures and unemployment.

Armond Budish's official statement in response (yes, the county executive issued an official response to a hastily written column by a sportswriter) was just as cliched in its endorsement as Shaughnessy's column was in its perceived denigration. It could have been ripped from the pages of Travel & Leisure or Thrillist.

"Mr. Shaughnessy, we are so glad you've taken the time to take note of the affordability of Cleveland, Ohio," Budish said. "You're right, you can buy a $3 beer right downtown. You can also live in a beautiful, inexpensive home in a nice, safe neighborhood and still have a 15-minute commute to work, enjoy the Cleveland Orchestra, appreciate one of the largest theater districts in the nation, and of course, cheer on our beloved sports team. That's just Cleveland."

(The "cost of living myth" was addressed in the April issue of Cleveland Magazine: "Read virtually any promotional brochure or talk to almost any resident about the benefits of Northeast Ohio, and cost of living is likely to rise to the top of the list," wrote Brad Whitehead. He argued that while home values remain low, transportation costs are high. "Greater Clevelanders typically spend 55 percent of income on housing and transportation combined compared with 40 percent of income typically spent by the nation as a whole," wrote Whitehead, citing a Center for Neighborhood Technology report. "And here is the real kicker: We spend a greater share of our income on housing and transportation than do residents of Greater Boston, Greater Chicago or Greater New York." But, hey, Best City to Go Car-Free, right?)

Back to Budish: "Just down the way from Flannery's Pub and Horseshoe Casino," he continued, mentioning establishments that Shaughnessy had referenced by name, "is an entertainment district we call East 4th. You can visit one of dozens of restaurants, including those run by world renowned chefs like Michael Symon and Jonathon Sawyer. If you took a little bit longer of a walk, you'd see that downtown boasts thousands of residents and an occupancy rate of nearly 98%. It seems we can't build downtown apartments fast enough for all the folks clamoring to live here! National publications have certainly taken notice. Maybe you missed the articles..."

As Scene noted at the time, a travel piece published the previous month in the Globe, "Cleveland Rocks! City Makes a Comeback," had been removed because the trip that inspired it was paid for by Destination Cleveland. Maybe Shaughnessy had missed the article, we suggested.

The oft-touted 2016 Forbes piece, "Why Cleveland is America's Hottest City Right Now," was also written by a contributor whose trip was subsidized by Destination Cleveland. (This is not a knock on Destination Cleveland. As Gilbert mentioned, public relations in an effort to boost tourism is the organization's mission.)

But it is critical to recognize that these lists are qualitatively distinct from studies and local reporting about the region's legitimate challenges: the startling numbers about the number of CSMD high schoolers who've contemplated or attempted suicide in the past five years, for example; or the city's intransigence on lead poisoning; or child poverty rates higher than 53 percent; or infant mortality rates in black neighborhoods that remain at third-world levels.

This distinction is especially key for political leaders who cite this publicity as evidence of anything other than successful public relations campaigns. (Those same leaders were recently also all too eager to hack away at Destination Cleveland's funding as part of the Q deal; the organization stands to commit $44 million toward the renovation project, money that they'll struggle to replace, money David Gilbert has acknowledged is essential for making the publicity machine go.)

If you're ready to dismiss the bogus clickbait-y lists that place Cleveland among the ugliest or gloomiest or unhappiest cities in the country; then you must also be ready to dismiss similar bogus clickbaity lists that place Cleveland among the best cities for romantic getaways or for beer lovers. Or you'll have to confront the fact that being a hot tourist destination doesn't correlate with being a good and equitable place to live. That has proven to be a tough hurdle for many Clevelanders.

Another distinction, of course, is one mentioned above, about the depth of the reporting. David Gilbert was quick to acknowledge that many of the lists aren't assembled with a great deal of rigor, and certainly not with the same care and sophistication as something like the U.S. News and World Report's Best Hospitals.

"That said," offered Gilbert, by way of summary, "we'd far rather be on those lists than not."

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