Cover-ups Don’t Work: PR Lessons From San Francisco’s Clean-up

Last month, San Francisco’s leadership failed perhaps the most basic of PR tests: They tried to put lipstick on a pig and pretend it wasn’t a hog.

The city known for squalor, a housing crisis and retail crime tried to reclaim its lost City of Love moniker by pushing homeless people off the street, cleaning feces off those same streets, and policing high-crime areas. The goal was to present a clean, well-run city for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, which was bringing international leaders and $500 million to the city.

The goal was achieved. Unfortunately, it came after years of mismanagement and excuses to residents that nothing could be done—which meant that instead of a narrative about a City of Love reboot, media outlets across the country ran story after story about the clean-up cover-up that one presidential candidate noted implied a preference for pleasing “communist dictators” over taxpaying residents. Cover-ups don’t work. And that’s just one of the PR lessons that San Francisco’s leaders failed to recognize in the lead-up to the Summit.

Others include:

  1. Lipstick on a pig is still a pig, and spin is just spin without a firm foundation. Great PR is built on truth, proven facts, past success, and future application.
  2. The most trusted and influential media gatekeepers aren’t likely to take big stories at face value, even if they’re on your “side” of an issue. They’ll want context and data–in this case, even the left-leaning New York Times’ story focused heavily on past failures and current criticism from residents, giving the famously left-leaning city a black eye in one of the world’s biggest papers.
  3. Core audiences come first. China’s dictator and America’s president brought a lot of good things to San Francisco during the Summit, including famous figures and a huge infusion of cash. But they were gone in days, leaving residents wondering why their pleas went ignored for years. And those residents are going to make their voices heard in the press, on social media, on the streets, and in the ballot boxes.
  4. PR is a long game. Shiny objects are great–but big news fades, and the slow drip of everyday news is what will stick in people’s minds, and become the narrative.
  5. Don’t create unnecessary crises. People will forgive mistakes, and they’ll forgive imperfect. It’s a lot harder to forgive perceived or actual deception or intentional neglect.

San Francisco has built a self-inflicted brand crisis for years, one that it can’t gaslight its way out of. City leaders need to go back to the crisis communications drawing board, and expect that building trust is going to take years—if not decades.