“Listening to the City”
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“Listening to the City”

The Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York engaged CooperKatz & Company to design and execute a communications campaign in conjunction with a community outreach initiative conducted by M&R Strategic Services that would attract participants to and broadly publicize the results of “Listening to the City,” a 21st Century town hall meeting.

Paul Holmes

The Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York engaged CooperKatz & Company to design and execute a communications campaign in conjunction with a community outreach initiative conducted by M&R Strategic Services that would attract participants to and broadly publicize the results of “Listening to the City,” a 21st Century town hall meeting. The July 20, 2002 event gave nearly 5,000 tri-state area residents the opportunity to react to plans prepared by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for the World Trade Center site, as well as to discuss the creation of a memorial to the victims of 9/11. The Community Relations category specifically recognizes an effort “designed to position an organization as a good citizen.” “Listening to the City” truly meets this criterion.
The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center ripped a huge emotional hole into the hearts of people around the world. It also created an enormous, 16-acre physical void in the center of New York City’s financial district, affecting thousands of businesses and residents in the neighborhood and throughout the metropolitan region as a whole. Rebuilding the area and creating a permanent memorial to the victims is a highly emotional issue – one that profoundly affects hundreds of constituencies, each with its own perspectives, concerns and needs.
To ensure that citizens’ voices would be heard in the planning process, the Regional Plan Association convened the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York, a coalition of more than 85 civic, labor, business, environmental groups and academic institutions. The central activity planned by the Civic Alliance, “Listening to the City,” was designed to democratically engage 5,000 individuals in a dialogue about the future of Lower Manhattan. The event – timed to occur just after the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey released their six initial designs for the World Trade Center site – utilized a unique citizen engagement model developed by nonprofit group AmericaSpeaks. It includes use of large-group interactive technologies as well as face-to-face discussions led by trained facilitators at tables of 10-12 participants.
“Listening to the City” had two distinct communications challenges: The first was to attract 5,000 individuals – demographically representative of the metropolitan region – to participate in the day-long event at the Javits Center. Unlike public hearings, which can be dominated by particular special interest groups, “Listening to the City” was intended to accurately reflect the region’s rich diversity; The second was to generate substantial media coverage of the event’s proceedings. The Civic Alliance wanted to ensure that the opinions expressed at “Listening to the City” would be seriously considered by decision-makers. Widespread media coverage of the public’s views, they reasoned, would force politicians to take note.
Using online media databases, CooperKatz (CK) researched, by name, journalists who were covering the rebuilding process – everyone from real estate writers to City Hall beat reporters – and targeted them with tailored story pitches. CK also located victim family members willing to submit letters-to-the-editor to their local publications. Similarly, M&R researched local community leaders and politicians willing to publicly encourage their constituents to participate in “Listening to the City.” Both CK and M&R attended the Civic Alliance’s bi-weekly citizen’s advisory board meetings to hear directly the concerns of key community leaders.
With the research complete, the Civic Alliance, M&R Strategic Services and CK developed the following three key objectives:
· Generate broad awareness throughout the New York metropolitan region for “Listening to the City” as a meaningful, democratic way to engage up to 5,000 citizens in the planning process for Lower Manhattan
· Generate targeted awareness among individuals within the region’s many geographic and ethnic communities
· Generate broad media coverage of the event itself to ensure that decision-makers seriously considered the opinions expressed during “Listening to the City’s” proceedings
 As indicated above, a paramount goal of “Listening to the City” was to ensure that it reflected the region’s demographics. Attracting a diverse group of participants required careful analysis of how best to reach and persuade individuals to attend. For some, news coverage in major media would be influential. For others, the “endorsement” of local community leaders, 9/11 victim family members or ethnic publications would be most convincing. Guided by this understanding, media relations and community outreach teams worked in tandem to recruit the optimal mix of participants.
 The media campaign consisted of: establishing a broad awareness and legitimacy for “Listening to the City” via print and broadcast placements in top tier New York and national media outlets. As those stories ran, reaching out to a broad array of highly “granular” media (e.g. geographic, ethnic) with messages about “Listening to the City.” As registration demographics began to emerge, focusing on under-represented constituencies via a highly targeted media outreach.
In the final stages of registration, if necessary, use paid advertising appeals in highly targeted media to fill-in registration demographic gaps.
Community Outreach consisted of reaching out to a wide array of local groups, including civic, business, neighborhood, religious, tenant, community and senior organizations to join the effort to recruit participants and directly contacting target populations via community presentations and street activity.
 CooperKatz contacted all major media in the region as well as hundreds of “granular” media, including borough, neighborhood and ethnic publications, radio stations and cable TV outlets, with the goal of encouraging people of all walks of life to register. Techniques included a stream of press release updates, one-on-one story pitching, pre-written articles for newsletters, letters-to-the-editor submitted under the names of community leaders and victim family members, public service announcements and – ultimately – paid advertising. CooperKatz also designed all collateral materials – the “Listening to the City” logo, flyers, leaflets and posters – used by the community outreach team.
M&R used phone, mail, fax and e-mail to communicate with lists of local organization leaders. In addition, they obtained endorsements from local politicians, placed posters in storefronts and leafleted target populations at transportation hubs, block parties and street festivals.
Monitoring registration demographics on a daily basis, both teams continually adjusted and coordinated their media and community outreach efforts as needed.
Once 5,000 participants were pre-registered, CooperKatz turned its attention to encouraging media attendance at the event. Invitations and needs assessment forms were distributed to a huge list of local and national news outlets. Over 250 media outlets, including 30 broadcast crews, attended “Listening to the City.” CooperKatz created detailed plans to service the huge anticipated event media contingent and individually worked with each to provide tailored on-site access to participants, facilitators, spokespeople, live and recorded TV feeds and polling results – without disrupting the proceedings. To assist on-site, CK recruited and trained 30 student volunteers from the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University to help with media registration, work in the press room and accompany reporters on the floor of the Javits Center.
“Listening to the City” was successful in attracting participants whose geographic, age, income, and ethnic diversity closely matched the demographics of the region. The event reached an audience of 77.5 million people through thousands of newspaper stories – many front-page with photos – plus over 650 television reports by broadcast network, cable and local TV outlets. Two television networks, CNN and MSNBC, covered the event live. “Listening to the City” also received several highly favorable editorials, including ones in The New York Times and Newsday. Even Daily News columnist and well-known curmudgeon Pete Hammil wrote a glowing account about the event’s impact, calling it a “Thrilling Show of People Power.”
Most importantly, “Listening to the City” made a huge impact on decision-makers. It is widely acknowledged that the event induced the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to scrap their initial six designs and embark on an entirely new direction for rebuilding the World Trade Center site.
On July 21 – the day after “Listening to the City” took place, the New York Times front-page story reported, “Officials charged with rebuilding Lower Manhattan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center said yesterday that they would consider new options for the site, including scaling back the amount of commercial space and extending the timeline for completing a final plan. The changes, the officials said, were in response to a broad array of criticism of the six initial designs for rebuilding the trade center site, including unfavorable appraisals at a town hall meeting in Manhattan yesterday.”
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