Oklahoma boosters advise bad news is bad for business

By Brianna Bailey

Like many Oklahomans, people in the economic development business cringed after blurry cellphone video of the University of Oklahoma fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s racist chant went viral and made national headlines last week.

When trying to lure new businesses to the area, negative media attention and bad perceptions about the state can be hard to overcome, said Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.

“Image is really important and it impacts how people think and what we do,” Williams said. “The way we act and when people do really bad things, it hurts us — it negatively impacts corporate decision about investments and jobs.”

In recent years, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber has prioritized “image marketing” with the goal of changing negative perceptions about Oklahoma, including a $1 million marketing campaign that included full-page color ads in the Western edition of the Wall Street Journal, touting quality of life in the state.

“We learned that we could change people’s perceptions, but we had to spend a million dollars to do it,” Williams said.

Projecting a positive image of the city is also critical for keeping and retaining skilled workers — particularly millennials, Williams said. A steady pipeline of talented, educated workers is vital to most companies in the site-selection process, he said.

“Millennials are the ones who are kind of changing the paradigm of economic development,” Williams said. “They are going to where they want to live and the companies are going where they are. So we have to be very conscious of what kind of signals we send to the world.”

Mickey Hepner, dean of the College of Business at the University of Central Oklahoma, said that a positive perception of Oklahoma is critical to keeping college-educated workers from leaving the state.

“The most important thing is quality of life in order to recruit and retain a high-quality workforce. We have to make it a place where people want to live,” Hepner said. “The most talented people are also the ones who have the most options available to them. Unless we are an attractive place to live, we are not going to be able to attract and keep those types of individuals to spark and stimulate economic growth.”

Over the past month, the Oklahoma Legislature has garnered widespread media attention for bills that included demoting the watermelon from its status as official state vegetable, the so-called “hoodie bill” that would have banned concealing one’s identity with a mask, hood or covering, as well as legislation that would abolish state marriage licenses.

David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said the negative media attention on the Oklahoma Legislature, as well as lack of focus on the state’s $611 million budget shortfall, had the potential to be harmful to Oklahoma.

“From my perspective, these issues have served as a distraction from the real issues we should be focusing on — especially a massive budget shortfall and the continuing failure of the state to be able to meet its budget obligations,” Blatt said.

The Tulsa Regional Chamber has been critical of the frivolity of some of the bills introduced in Oklahoma this session.

During a recent visit to the state capitol, Skye McNiel, a Tulsa Regional Chamber spokeswoman, said some of the bills had tarnished the state’s image nationally, giving Oklahoma “a black eye,” according to a recent Tulsa World story.

In a statement, Mike Neal, president and CEO of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said the state’s top priority should be creating a more business-friendly environment.

“Our priority is encouraging the business community, the Legislature, press and citizens alike to highlight and put our energies and focuses into policies that move our state forward, and not spend precious time and limited resources on policies that do not impact the future growth and success of Oklahoma,” Neal said.



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