Published in Uptown, a publication of the Municipal Association of South Carolina
In 2010, the city of Walterboro was facing a public safety crisis on several fronts. Three people had been shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in the city in late 2009. City residents and businesses were alarmed about local safety. Reporters were regularly reporting inaccuracies in the newspaper. Tourism interests were concerned about the perception the crimes were presenting to potential visitors.
“Everywhere we went, people knew about this situation in Walterboro,” said Mayor Bill Young. While the council had taken quick action to come up with a plan to mitigate the crimes and reassure residents and businesses that the situation was well in hand, the city continued to get bad ink from local and regional reporters. “I had gotten to a point where I didn’t want to talk to any reporters,” said Young.
But a strong media relations plan coupled with dollars from state and federal grants helped get the city’s perception back to the positive and the neighborhood where the shootings took place some much needed assistance with additional crime prevention efforts.
Ironically, the city was in the midst of interviewing consultants to help them develop a tourism and economic promotion plan when this public safety crisis happened. City leaders knew they couldn’t tackle the economic development plan until the crime situation was solved.
City Manager Jeff Lord said the first thing they learned was to identify what the city wasn’t doing when confronted with the situation. “At a council meeting, we discussed at length what we were going to do,” Lord said. “Then we used traditional means to get the word out about our plans. The plan didn’t have a fancy name. We put the information out in a public meeting; put information on the city website. But we quickly learned we weren’t getting out the information in a way the media could use it.”
Elizabeth Boineau, president of E. Boineau and Company in Charleston, encouraged city officials to package the information so that reporters could easily find it and use it. In addition to formalizing the name of the plan into an easy to read public document, the city shared and posted media materials that told the story of Walterboro and gave general background on the city. Boineau said, “The city also provided research with actual facts of the crimes to try and eliminate some of the false information that was circulating.”
The city also worked to get erroneous information corrected. For instance, when a shooting later took place in the unincorporated area of the county, a newspaper was using “Walterboro” to describe the location of the incident. “We immediately called the reporter and made sure it was corrected. A small detail like that makes a huge difference where perception is concerned,” Boineau said.
All of these negatives ultimately came together into a positive when SLED and the governor’s office learned how the city was tackling the problems in a positive way, Young said. “The governor and I talked frequently about what was happening during the times of the shootings.”
Lord said, “We got a call that the governor and SLED wanted to work with Walterboro as one of two sites around the state to receive $500,000 from the Community Development Block Grant program to address blight in the area.”
Additionally the Coordinating Council for Economic Development provided matching funds to purchase police equipment through SLED and to fund a job development program for youth through the Department of Juvenile Justice. The city has also been able to leverage another $180,000 for rehab work through the HOME Consortium and is working on another $600,000 from the Commerce Department to fund the demolition of large blighted sites in the area.”
Young said, “The governor and SLED had seen proactive activity to get the situation under control. It had a ripple effect – a good ancillary effect that ended up being enormous for the city and the neighborhood residents who got a safer neighborhood.”