Monday, June 15, 2009

$1 million for a parade in a broke town?

Too many fans want a Lakers victory parade this Wednesday (June 17). That response likely will muffle any anger and resentment over the $1 million the city will pay to have the parade.

Yet, the city and the Lakers must consider the long-term consequences, rather than live for the moment.

((UPDATE: Today (Monday, 4 p.m.) The Mayor announced he is seeking private donations to pay for the city's share and believes he will get all the needed money.))

read on original posting....

From a public relations professional perspective, this one is truly a gamble both in terms of reputation (Lakers) and further decay in public trust (City).

The arguments against are already being made.

For instance, why must the city shell out $1 million when, say, teachers are being laid off?

Why can't the Lakers, who will reap a windfall from the NBA Championship, pay the entire estimated $2 million it will cost to pay for extra police, traffic control, etc.? (Granted, some of the windfall will be spent paying on clauses in contracts that reward a trip to the finals. And the owners will likely need to shell out some dollars to keep a couple of key players who are free agents).

The question before the Lakers is whether they truly risk losing millions of dollars worth in earned reputation. Or, to look at it another way: Will $2 million earn them a lasting, positive bond with millions of fans? Will the city significantly hurt its chances to win future votes from its residents by shelling out $1 million for a parade in a down economy?

How easy a call is this from a public relations perspective? Let's consider the potential scenarios.

The Lakers pay all the costs of the parade.

The players and the owner of an incredible franchise could score significant benefit from showing a little bit more compassion in a down economy. While we're at it, let's ask the owner of the building to chip in, too.

The city of Los Angeles is hurting. Fans are hurting. Unemployment rates in CA are among the highest in the country. Teachers are being laid off and class sizes are doubling in some schools. The risk of antagonizing a large sector of the population is higher than normal.

Some of the biggest Laker fans are those who will never be able to afford a ticket to a game. That kind of loyalty is hard to achieve, but can be quickly lost with a few bad moves.

If left as is - with the city paying $1 million for what seems like a frivolous one-time event when compared to the longer-term pain suffered by teachers - the anger and finger-pointing could last for months. Perhaps all the way into next season.

The anger could go off in several directions - at the city, the players, the team's owner.

Let's evaluate one source of that anger. All too often we hear debates about why professional athletes get paid millions while some of our most important individuals - teachers - get by on scraps.

Granted, it's an old debate and there are valid arguments and justifications about professional athlete salaries. Yet, it's still a comparison that conjures up feelings about what is right. These feelings can linger for years. Let's not forget there are thousands across the country who still boycott baseball because of the player's strike just a few years ago.

This same sentiment, the same kind of argument is starting to bubble up today. On one side we have highly paid athletes - on the other we have teachers in classrooms filled to capacity. Depending on our budget issues and the amount of coverage given to athletes' salaries, the sentiments could last for a while.

If you are a professional basketball player in the largest media market in the world, why add more fuel to this fire?

For the city, the matter comes down to earning broad, long-term support from voters. Do city officials want to see protest signs during the parade? Do they want TV crews to interview teachers, police officers, mothers with strollers -- who showed up for the celebration only to spew anger at the city for paying for a parade?

Or would you rather see nothing but "Thank You, Lakers" and "We Love You Lakers" signs?

Now, as a public relations professional, it would be our responsibility - if we were working for the city or the Lakers - to point out all the net positive impacts the Lakers have on the city. I just have to throw this in here, because it's our job to communicate our client's side. It would go something like this: The Lakers are a net positive economic force in the city. They generate millions of dollars in retail sales from clothing alone. They employ hundreds directly and thousands indirectly. We also know that the Staples Center was a catalyst for the incredible downtown investment that is now highlighted by LA Live.

OK. But in this economy, in this setting - it's a very difficult journey to come up with arguments and reasons to counter the darkness surrounding the city budget - and laid off teachers and higher classroom sizes, and reduced social services and, and.....

So, where does this leave a city that wants to celebrate?

If the Lakers really don't have another $1 million, then why not scale down the parade? It is, after all, a down economy and most everyone should "get it." A more modest celebration in a recession will be understood. That is a much easier message to convey, a simpler feeling to convey because the public is ready and willing to accept it.

A celebration is a celebration, after all.

The question now is whether it's a decadent and extravagant one, and will be ridiculed rather than remembered.

Again, think about the long-term consequences. Look beyond the parade.

After Wednesday's parade is over. After the warm and fuzzy feelings quickly dissolve into our normal worries about putting food on the table, after the smiling faces in photos and on TV fade away, after the confetti is swept up and we hang up our 24 jerseys because Manny's back in the lineup - one piece of this parade will linger and haunt City Hall for a long time.

Try this: "Well, we can't pay for firefighting services, but we could sure afford a parade."

Fill in your own: "Well, we couldn't afford ----------, but we could sure afford a parade."

Trying to defend spending $1 million of city money we don't have on a parade in this economy is much harder work with longer-term pain that trying to bring everyone's thinking along about why our parade was just a bit smaller than the last one.

The reasons for a $2 million parade may sound good now - to those who are supporting it.

These reasons just won't make sense six months from now when the city puts up a ballot measure, or DWP raises rates or more teacher layoffs are announced.

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