A major flaw in the new Brookings “Rhode Island Innovates” Study is that it fails to address the deep erosion of the state’s credibility caused by spin-soaked communications. Accordingly, since the study does not recognize the problem, it does not offer a solution.
Among the Study’s numerous on-target discoveries of the obvious is its finding that Rhode Island is afflicted with “a crisis of confidence borne of passive leadership over several decades and several public that corruption scandals.” That, it says, makes “Rhode Islanders… a skeptical lot.” Also, it neglects to add, that is how it affects many successful business executives Rhode Island is trying to woo. Nor does it mention that Rhode Island’s leadership has generated and continues to generate and strengthen much skepticism through a gusher of spinspeak that seeks to obscure reality by insisting on a fantasy world.
A current sampler:
- Endless repetition of empty mantras such as “jobs, jobs, jobs” from the self-billed “jobs governor” purporting to assure that a stream of new businesses offering jobs should certainly be coming along soon.
- Labeling controversial programs with adland brand names such as “RhodeWorks” for truck tolls and “Rebuild Rhode Island” for tax credits.
- Much vague fogtalk regarding semi-secret efforts to attract out-of-state business to the I95 Commission land, which remains embarrassingly barren to daily public observation.
- Ballyhooing advance leaks suggesting that General Electric, before it picked Boston, was really, really interested in moving its headquarters to Rhode Island.
- Blaming cancellation of the tone deaf idea of a gubernatorial junket to the Davos World Economic Forum on a coming snowstorm instead of simply apologizing for the immediately opposed attempt to pay for the trip by dipping into University of Rhode Island Foundation education contribution money.
- Governor Gina Raimondo’s congratulatory evaluation of her first year accomplishments in which she asks “Did we get it done?” and gives herself an “A.”
All of this is toxic to credibility. Rhode Island is a growing crisis communications case study. It cannot be cured by spinning an alternative universe.
But rather than recognizing that and proposing a major new strategic communications plan that would embrace reality, stop the spin, and restore and sustain credibility, the Brookings study buries on page 131 of its 198 pages a suggestion that “bold messaging” of any tax and regulatory reforms would be desirable.
The study also offers some triumphally encouraging spin of its own in its opening pages, reminding Rhode Island that it “has done it before:”
In the years prior to the American Revolution, Rhode Island business boomed with the highly profitable triangular slaves and rum trade, which the study calls the “imaginative carrying trade.” After the Revolution, Rhode Island boomed again, the study says, “launching a new age of industrialization” by applying “the newest technology from Britain.” The study uses the verb “apply” as a synonym for the historically accurate verb “steal.”
“Rhode Islanders,” the study says, “innovated, transformed their economy, and prospered.” That is true. But it should have added that entrepreneurial Rhode Islanders did it with a minimum of spin.
James Baar is an author, international communications consultant, and resident of Providence.