It happens to the best of us. Something happens that doesn’t look good, and people are talking about it. But, the truth may get warped or exaggerated; agendas are added, and like a bad game of “Telephone,” the negative message gets repeated over and over again.
So, how does a person, company, or location (in the case of this week’s show), change their reputation and external messaging back to something more attractive? For Jeremy Stratton, the CEO of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce and the Chair of his Board, Lisa Smith, this is a primary concern. Their area, located on the south side of Atlanta, has long been criticized for everything from falling real estate values, to impossible traffic and out of control crime. Even their education system has been under fire.
But, Stratton and Smith are focused on reversing this opinion, and it’s a lesson that most leaders can learn from. By meeting the challenges posed by a bad rep, while tackling the true problems and playing up the positives, they hope to turn Clayton County from an afterthought to a place where businesses want to be, and with them, more retail and residential growth.
Find Your Footing
For Stratton and Smith, the issues facing Clayton County are part of the growing pains of any area, even one with one of the biggest and busiest airports on the planet. For them, it’s a place full of possibilities.”If you look on a map, where else in the world do you have the world’s busiest airport within your county,” Stratton states. “Four interstates, 85, 75, 285, and 675, and then you’re right next door to Atlanta and 5.5 million people. There are not a lot of communities in the world that can say that. So, Clayton County, on paper, is an easy, easy sell. We just need to reach out, and that’s what we need to do a better job of.”
So, what’s holding them back? “There is an overall perception about crime and that it’s not a place where you want to live or go,” argues Smith, citing truth vs. market myth. Oddly enough, a recent report from WSB-TV stated that “Clayton County reported the lowest percentage of crime with 5.79%, while neighboring counties DeKalb and Fulton Counties, weighed in at 17.96% and 24.36% respectively.”
Yet, thanks to outdated stats, that reality is being ignored, and Smith finds that offensive. “We try to operate in the realm of the facts,” she adds. “It’s a great place to do business. It’s a great place to move and live with your family. The school system is a great school system.” For the Chamber of Commerce, removing the stigma associated with Clayton County is job number one.
Education Opportunities Are Key
Granted, not everything in the area was functioning flawlessly. Back in 2010, the Clayton County education system was in shambles. As Stratton puts it, “we did lose accreditation momentarily, and it had more to do with how the school board was getting along with each other more than anything else.” The result was infighting, bickering, plummeting test scores, and the perception that Clayton County was no place to bring your kids.
Now, both see a turnaround in the making. “We just hired Dr. Morcease Beasley,” Stratton states, “It’s going to take a while, to see all the results but I think we have the right person, the head of the ship.” Smith agrees. “Beasley has really embraced input and discussions with the community,” she adds, “He has very frequent community meetings. I can only see things continuing to improve.” It all goes back to the aforementioned strategic plan, and having everyone on the same page.
And the result has been improvement. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reports that among the state’s elementary schools, Clayton County has seen a rise of nearly six points over their overall score ratings from last year. This is based on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, which ranks schools on a 100-point scale based on factors such as test pass rates, poverty rates, etc. In equally good news, for middle schools, the increase was four points. So, each year, things are getting better. Indeed, those improvements helped push Clayton’s growth rate to about double the state’s average.
Seek Advice from Outside
Smith believes that strong leadership can help foster the shift in perception. “It is always the foundation,” she points out, adding that the Chamber is actually made up of many strong CEOs and political influencers. This allows them to directly engage with the individuals who are making the decisions that affect them. Stratton agrees, making sure to mention that the Chamber itself has gone from a kind of marketing branch for the area to a pragmatic part of the solution…and they’ve done this by developing a strategic plan.
“We start looking at how we can help in workforce development,” he adds, “How can we get involved with the business retention and expansion visits of our existing companies?” It goes beyond this basic tenet, however. “We’re looking at community development,” Stratton states, “How can we have a cool place where people want to hang out? How can we have nice neighborhoods that people want to live in?” Both realize that the most important element in all of this is education. The Chamber has been very involved in the hiring of a new superintendent, making “sure the school board was on task with who they were going to hire,” he says.
But, it hasn’t been easy. “The perception is more ingrained with the people (in the area) than it is outside,” Stratton states, “And maybe we need to look at how people view themselves first.” He believes that if Clayton County itself can stop ‘hating’ itself and project a more positive view of the area to the rest of the country, their fortunes can and will change for the better.
Admit Your Mistakes and Find Solutions
For the Chamber, the need to change the negative perception was paramount. But, it didn’t mean trying to hide the truth. Instead, as Stratton puts it, it meant more engagement.”It’s important to get everybody’s input on the areas that they thought we should focus on,” he states, “and those four areas were defined as community development, economic development, education, and strategic plan governance. Once we got down those four areas, we made sure we had action items and timelines of when we’re going to get those items done.”
It can’t and won’t happen overnight. “Our plan is three years, because a five-year plan is very difficult,” Stratton comments. “Community development, economic development, those things are ongoing and some of those initiatives and projects may take ten years.” For Smith, it’s about getting the new positive messaging out to the world. “People outside of Atlanta need to get that message [about Clayton County], as they’re thinking about, where do we want to go next in this country or even internationally,” she says, pointing to Porsche’s positive results after moving near Clayton County.
By seeking the advice of the community and its leaders, both in business and in politics, and developing a plan that emphasizes the positives while acknowledging the flaws and finding ways to correct them, Clayton County has made tremendous strides towards improving its image.