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Experts work on marketing campaign, that builds steel image

Sunday, November 03, 2002

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The year U.S. Steel shut down the Mon Valley's once-mighty Homestead Works, economic development official Jay Aldridge joked to The Washington Post that one way Pittsburgh could shed its "Steel City" label would be to alter the name of its football team.

(Illustration by Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette)

Instead of the Steelers, "maybe we should rename them the 'Pittsburgh Softwares,'" he said.

Aldridge's deliberately facetious suggestion, made in 1986, captured the psychological struggle involved in the crafting of Pittsburgh's post-industrial image. Despite, or perhaps because of, several mill closings in the 1980s, Pittsburgh was still fixed in the public's imagination as a steel-making capital on the decline, full of tragically nostalgic stories about the time when businessmen took several pairs of shirts to work and the street lamps burned through the smoke night and day.

A decade and a half after Aldridge's quip, Pittsburgh is still trying to figure out what to do with its "Steel City' image and whether to incorporate its industrial heritage into yet another new regional marketing campaign that could debut in 2003.

For the last three decades, as the area lived through a manufacturing decline that was the most severe of any major metropolitan area in the country, local officials attached themselves to slogans and advertisements designed to focus attention away from steel, starting with the "City of Champions" in the 1970s and evolving to a "Dynamic Pittsburgh" national advertising campaign in the early 1980s. A host of other similarly well-intentioned ideas and suggestions followed, from "America's Renaissance City" to "Pittsburgh, The City with a Smile On Its Face," to "Pittsburgh Shines" to "Right Place. Right Now."

"We were not trying to put the knock on steel," said the now semi-retired Aldridge, who in the '80s came up with an advertising campaign touting the region that ran in The Wall Street Journal. "What we were saying was the community thrived whether steel was here or not.

"We wanted to get away from the fact that we were a single-industry community."

Yet despite all these efforts, no new portrait of Pittsburgh has resonated with the public quite like the old mythology of the "Steel City." Realizing this, the people responsible for a new Pittsburgh-area marketing campaign are debating whether to go with something new or to stick with the imagery that works, even if the familiar Pittsburgh "brand" is slightly out of date.

In September, a 50-person team led by ex-TV reporter Bill Flanagan and WQED-TV Chairman George Miles turned the debate over to the trio of Downtown advertising firm Burson-Marsteller, Cincinnati consulting firm Landor Associates and the McLean, Va., opinion research firm Wirthlin Worldwide.

From the beginning, the firms selected for the job pledged that a new image or "brand" should have widespread community support and not forsake Pittsburgh's roots.

Such a promise takes the middle ground between two philosophical camps. One belongs to the people who believe Pittsburgh already has a strong, well-known identity around the world, as a hard-working, innovative industrial center that once was the world's steel maker, and that we should embrace that view, instead of running away from it. The other camp belongs to people who want to put the old images away and replace them with talk of a diversified, high-tech economy that emphasizes knowledge and research over sweat and brawn. Just as every attempt to conjure up the region's past meets with skepticism, so does every attempt to create a new image devoid of steel.

The new hope is that image makers can combine the old and the new, melding the most enduring aspects of the "Steel City" with a fresh, captivating story about Pittsburgh's future.

"This a very tough assignment," said the Heinz Endowments' Grant Oliphant, part of the local committee that selected the new marketing team. "We have to be careful about steel in this respect. We are not a steel town anymore. That's a reality. That is not who we are anymore. The underlying, core values are who were are. We have to capture those core underlying values without appearing to live in the past."

The last thing Oliphant wants is for Pittsburgh to wallow in nostalgia and become "the steel equivalent of colonial Williamsburg."

Flanagan, too, warned that "we can't pretend to be someplace we are not."

But if Pittsburgh is no longer the "Steel City," what is it?

The answer, or part of it, can be found on the football field, where the fight for Pittsburgh's identity is still being waged every Sunday.

Here we go, Steelers

The Steelers have one of the best-known names in sport, representing Pittsburgh around the country and the world. But because the team's name and logo have roots in the steel industry, some economic development officials are concerned that television coverage of a team that takes its inspiration from the region's past makes it difficult to create a new national image of Pittsburgh.

Last year, during the NFL playoffs, former KDKA-TV reporter Flanagan tried to convince broadcasters at CBS not to show the typical steelworker images during the games and to concentrate their cameras and commentary instead on other aspects of Pittsburgh's economy. But Flanagan admitted at the time that "the networks will probably go out and still do stories about steel and steelworkers."

"We are in the Steel City. Until we can figure out an image that is real and true and resonates as well as the Steel City, we are going to have to live with it. That is how the world knows us, so you have to invest that with new meaning somehow, until you can figure out something better that people will buy into."

Flanagan's efforts caused a stir at U.S. Steel Corp. The nation's largest unionized steelmaker still receives and fulfills network requests for footage at local steel mills.

"We are concerned about any effort to take steel out of the Steel City," said Mike Dixon, a spokesman for the company, still one of Pittsburgh's largest. Dixon served on Flanagan's playoff publicity committee and said "it was apparent (the committee) didn't want steel to be featured."

Dixon said his company has no problem with an emphasis on Pittsburgh's diverse economy, but he also wants people to get past steel's stereotype as a "dirty, grimy business."

"It is not correct. We are a high-tech industry."

New York architect Peter Matthews, who lived in the Pittsburgh during the 1980s and designed several buildings here, could not agree more. He views steel and high technology as sharing the same historical continuum. Turning away from steel, Matthews said, only confuses Pittsburgh's message to a national audience, "because everybody with a TV sees Pittsburgh and steel as synonymous."

Steel, Matthews said, "is a given. Once you recognize that then you can substantially move forward."

It took a recent meeting between U.S. Steel Chairman Tom Usher and Pittsburgh Regional Alliance President Ronnie Bryant to repair any hurt feelings or confusion between the company and the economic development community. But economic development officials still are paying some attention to the images accompanying each nationally-televised Steelers game.

A recent Monday Night Football broadcast was cause for some celebration when announcer Al Michaels paused at a picture of the Pittsburgh skyline and described it as one of the "prettiest" in America. Elsewhere in the broadcast, however, was the familiar shot of a steel mill, with flames and large equipment filling the screen.

Networks, in the end, find it hard to resist such imagery.

Last fall, for example, a crew from ESPN came to Pittsburgh to shoot a feature about the Steelers for the network's "NFL Countdown" program. After talking to Coach Bill Cowher and a few of the players, reporter Greg Garber and producer Ben Houser decided on a theme. They would emphasize the toughness of the Steelers wide receivers, which reflected the city they played for.

To tell their story, Garber and Houser traveled outside Pittsburgh to U.S. Steel's Clairton Works, and talked to workers there about the play of the team's wide receivers. Many workers had the Steelers symbol -- courtesy of U.S. Steel -- pasted to the side of their hard hats.

"It is cliche, the Steel City," said ESPN reporter Greg Garber, who worked on the story. "But it really is true.

"They like their toughness."

Both Garber and House were familiar with Pittsburgh; House's aunt and uncle even live in Wexford. Both know the area is no longer dominated by steel, and that the skies are clean. But Houser said when people around the country think of Pittsburgh , "They think of steel and the Steelers."

When asked about the Steelers' impact on the image of the region, team spokesperson Ron Wahl said, "I think we promote the city just by being the Steelers." But, he added, "That is not what we are here to do. I don't think it is out job. (Economic development officials) have a specific goal in mind; ours is to promote our football team. In doing that, the team "is promoting the city, but not necessarily from a chamber of commerce point of view."

Hell with the lid off

To understand the root of Pittsburgh's identity crisis, it helps to understand the experience of 19th century journalist James Parton, who in November 1866 traveled here to write a profile of a city then emerging as one of the country's largest suppliers of glass, iron and oil. Parton, 44, was well known as an author who shared space in the same Atlantic Monthly magazine with Charles Dickens, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Parton also was the writer who came up with a memorable description of Pittsburgh that still haunts the city 134 years later: "Hell With the Lid Taken Off." Much of the conflict over Pittsburgh's identity comes from that phrase, in part because the original meaning has been twisted with time.

An actual reading of Parton's 20-page article in the Jan. 21, 1868, edition of the Atlantic Monthly produces a more complex, somewhat laudatory, view of a vital, energetic and workaholic Pittsburgh that cared little about its image. (Parton spells Pittsburgh without the "h", even though Pittsburgh officially dropped the "h" only from 1890 to 1911).

"Here all is curious or wonderful," Parton wrote. "Pittsburg is a place to read up for, to unpack your trunk and settle down at, to make excursions from, and to study as you would study a group of sciences. To know Pittsburg thoroughly is a liberal education in 'the kind of culture demanded by modern times.' "

Parton approached the city from Cincinnati, by train. Upon waking on Dec. 6, 1866, the sky was still dark and "the town was all astir." He could hear the newsboys, the street cars and the steamboat whistles outside his window.

"What energy, what a fury of industry!" he wrote. "All Pittsburg at work before the dawn of the day! This surpasses Chicago. What would luxurious St. Louis say of such reckless devotion to business as this?"

Deciding to blend in, Parton lit his gas lamp, thinking that "the first duties of the day were performed with that feeling of moral superiority to mankind on general which is apt to steal over the soul of a person who dresses by gaslight for the first time in many years."

Outside, Parton could not help notice the "ever-falling soot." With so little natural light, it was hard for him to read a newspaper. The sun appeared for a half hour that day, hidden the rest of the time by "smoke issuing from five hundred huge chimneys."

But just as the high housing prices, long hours and suburban office-park landscape of the Silicon Valley did not deter young workers from moving there at the end of the 20th century, Pittsburgh's conditions were not keeping people from southwestern Pennsylvania in the last half of the 19th century. If anything, the people of Pittsburgh were willing to rationalize their conditions.

The typical Pittsburgher, Parton said, insists "that the smoke of bituminous coal kills malaria, and saves the eyesight. The smoke, he informs you, is a perpetual public sun-shade and color-subduer. It is interesting to hear a Pittsburgher discourse on this subject; and it much relives the mind of a visitor to be told , and to have the assertion proved, that the smoke, so far from being evil, is a blessing."

Parton builds up to his famous phrase by telling readers that "there is one evening scene in Pittsburg which no visitor should miss."

Climbing up the hill that stood where Grant Street is today, Parton "looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld. The entire space lying between the hills was filled with blackest smoke, from out of which the hidden chimneys sent forth tongues of flame, while from the depths of the abyss came up the noise of hundreds of steam-hammers.

"There would be moments when no flames were visible; but soon the wind would force the smoky curtains aside, and the whole black expanse would be dimly lighted with dull wreathes of fire. It is an unprofitable business., view-hunting; but if any one would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up along hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into -- hell with the lid taken off.

"Such is the kind of day of which Pittsburg boasts."

Time for a change

A century later, much of the smoke was gone, but so were the boasts.

Industrialist Henry Hillman, who made much of his fortune in coke and chemicals, pledged to change that at a Nov. 16, 1971, dinner in Oakland. Hillman, then chairman of the post-World War II planning group Allegheny Conference on Community Development, announced that a new agency would develop a national marketing and advertising campaign designed to lure "plants, offices, conventions and tourists" here.

The new agency, Penn's Southwest, ran a few national ads in the 1970s, but the campaign did not really take form until 1981, when 18 of the biggest companies in Pittsburgh pledged $800,000 for 16 full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal. The campaign, called "Dynamic Pittsburgh," played up the area's ethnic character, low crime rate, culture, friendliness, sports, medical care, banking, university research and river transportation.

Little was said about steel.

Explaining the ads at the time, Aldridge said, "The region has gotten a bad rap nationally. Pittsburgh is the least understood city. We wanted to correct that." Part of Pittsburgh's problem, he said, "was Pittsburghers not believing in themselves. You might call it an inferiority complex. Being a loser. Apologizing for coming from Pittsburgh. But beginning certainly with the 1970s, there's been a pronounced change."

As the region's manufacturing base continued to erode, Aldridge and others went after high-tech companies and tasted some success. In the early 1980s, Pittsburgh convinced the U.S. Department of Defense to put its new software engineering institute in Pittsburgh, and officials touted the victory in The Wall Street Journal, saying "we have the talent, the experience, the skills, the resources, the environment and the dedication to get the job done."

Another victory for a new Pittsburgh came in 1985, when Pittsburgh became Rand McNally's "most livable city," unseating Atlanta. A Pennsylvania businessman paid for 11 billboards in the Atlanta area that read: "Greetings from Pittsburgh -- The Nation's Most Livable City."

"Y'all Come."

By the early 1990s, though, there was confusion about Pittsburgh's identity again. Carnegie Mellon University President Robert Mehrabian released a report concluding that "nothing has yet replaced manufacturing as the region's engine of growth and prosperity."

Mehrabian described the region as "adrift."

Despite that, a national fascination with high-tech businesses continued to drive the image makers in Pittsburgh. A 1997 report from business consultant The McKinsey Co. urged the region "to continue to transition away from our historic steel industry roots and instill a sense of renewal and revitalization in the community and our new economy."

Basing its conclusions on a telephone survey of 380 people who had never been to the area, McKinsey reported that the image of Pittsburgh was still a "blue-collar, smoky industrial city with lots of steel mills." Pittsburgh, McKinsey concluded, should aspire to become " a sophisticated, progressive, energized center of innovation for work and play."

That message resonated with those asked to sell such an image, including former Pittsburgh Regional Alliance President Tim Parks, who helped produce a series of quirky, MTV-style television ads targeted to 18-to-34-year-olds. His idea was to start the image makeover from within the region, convincing young people that Pittsburgh was a fun, cool and interesting place to live.

The ads fell flat.

But Parks also was among the first to articulate how Pittsburgh could build off its Steel City image without pretending that manufacturing and heavy industry no longer contribute to the local economy. In 1998, as part of a five-year marketing proposal, Parks pledged to improve the image of the region "not by changing the region's brand, but by updating and recasting it."

Parks' suggestion was similar in concept to "Networks of Steel" ad campaign launched that year by Marshall high-tech firm Fore Systems, now part of Marconi PLC. It featured the slogan: "We're from Pittsburgh. We build networks that last." The motto was embossed on a steel plate next to a photo of a bare-chested riveter.

John Athorn, the New York advertising executive who created the ad, said that his firm looked at Pittsburgh, "took a perceived negative and flipped it and said, 'No, there is something very appropriate and correct about these attributes Pittsburgh has.' "

One more try

On Oct. 9, Laura Gongos stood in front of a roomful of people on the 23d floor of Alcoa's old Downtown headquarters, now called the Regional Enterprise Tower. Gongos, an executive with advertising firm Burson-Marsteller and the point person on a new "branding" campaign for Pittsburgh, started the meeting with a quote from Walt Disney.

"If you can dream it, you can do it."

The fact that economic development officials have been dreaming about an image campaign for a "long, long time," Gongos said, gave her "great optimism that we are going to do it." It is now Gongos' job to create a brand for the Pittsburgh region that resonates with many and offends few. The brand, which may or may not take the form of a slogan, then would be sold to potential businesses, tourists and conventions. The larger community will be asked for input in a series of public meetings that began in October and continue this month.

Several times during her first talk in the old Alcoa building, Gongos came back to the issue of steel, and addressed the question that has stumped so many before her. Whatever Pittsburgh's identity is, she said, it "has to be real."

She added: "Are we going to walk away from our steel heritage? Of course not. That is who we are."

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