The Birmingham Renaissance

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Posted At: October 9, 2013 6:03 p.m.
by Kyle Borland

A city is a brand. In the same way a company like Coca-Cola or Apple would market itself, each city has to do the same. For better or for worse, each city has a certain something that defines it. Some cities are lucky and are defined by something positive. New York City is the “City That Never Sleeps.” Los Angeles is Hollywood. Boston is the “Cradle of the Revolution.” In contrast, some cities are not so lucky. One city may be the unluckiest of them all. The world knows this city as “Bombingham.”

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., was a pivotal moment in human history. When four young girls were killed that Sunday morning, shockwaves were sent around the world that persist to this day. It forced America to take action against racial injustice in the South, it inspired people all the around the world to fight for equal rights, and it has been what has defined Birmingham for the past 50 years.

Building the Snowball

Like any negative public perception, it takes motivated people and a well thought out plan to change negative opinions to positive ones. Birmingham is lucky enough that those pieces seem to be finally falling into place.

“Everyone keeps saying that Birmingham is at a tipping point,” said Ford Wiles, chief creative officer of BIG Communications. “I disagree. I say we’ve already tipped.”

Wiles may be right on that account. Birmingham is experiencing a renaissance and shows no signs of slowing down. In just this year alone the city has come to life again. It’s home to the Best Baseball Park in the country in Regions Field, a national award-winning urban park in Railroad Park, an expanding Uptown District and much, much more.

Photo credit: Lexico
Photo credit: Lexico

“You have to love yourself before others can love you,” Wiles said. “Birmingham is starting to love itself again. For the first time in 50 years, people want to spend time in the city.”

BIG Communications has had a lot to do with this change of heart. Its staff was responsible for the IN Birmingham campaign for the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau that garnered statewide and national media attention in 2007. What made it so successful? It relied on the residents of Birmingham to show the hidden gems of the city.

“We produced the IN Guide, which was an intensive guidebook to all the best restaurants, bars, stores and things to do in Birmingham,” Wiles said. “We asked the city to submit what they thought was the best things in town to put into the IN Guide. It meant so much more coming from the residents of the city.”

The IN Guide was a huge success. It not only helped attract visitors to the Birmingham area but it also increased business for local companies year round. Just being mentioned in the app was free advertising for the businesses. In addition to that, the IN Guide is now in its 4th generation and in mobile form with thousands of downloads to its credit.

Open for Business

In 2009, the Birmingham Business Alliance was formed. In order to change outward perception, it is vital that the people within a company or organization — or this case a city — are passionate. The BBA was formed to give Birmingham something to be passionate about.

“We knew that economic development was vital to the future of Birmingham,” said David Rickey, Senior VP of communications for the Birmingham Business Alliance. “We wanted to nurture Birmingham’s business community in every aspect.”

The BBA teamed up with — you guessed it — BIG Communications to help get the word out that Birmingham was open for business.

“We wanted people to know that something had changed,” Rickey said. “We wanted the citizens of Birmingham to know that we were here, and we were ready to not only attract new business but help foster the existing business community as well.”

The message was well-received. A little more than a year ago, two organizations, Operation New Birmingham and Main Street Birmingham, formed to create REV Birmingham. REV is an organization focused on the revitalization of Birmingham.

“REV Birmingham wants to be the tip of that spear,” said David Fleming, CEO of REV Birmingham. “We want to lead the way to an even greater Birmingham.

REV focuses on revitalizing the downtown area of Birmingham, growing existing businesses, and attracting new ones. It works hand-in-hand with the Birmingham Business Alliance often because of the overlap of their missions.

“The work that REV Birmingham is doing is phenomenal,” Rickey said. “They’re turning downtown Birmingham into a place that people want to be. The people of Birmingham are excited, and it’s contagious.”

Coming Full Circle

During every rebranding process, there comes a critical point where the decision must be made on how to approach dealing with the past. Do you ignore it and hope it goes away? Do you mention it and then brush it off? Or do you embrace it?

“Birmingham handled the 50-year anniversaries perfectly,” Ford Wiles said. “Our city embraced its history and because of that city can press on even more.”

The Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau approached BIG Communications once again to come up with a campaign that would celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the pivotal moments in civil rights history. BIG came up with the year-long “50 Years Forward” campaign.

“Civil rights history is one of the selling points of the city with the Civil Rights Institute, Heritage Trail, etc.,” Wiles said. “It’s important that the city values that history but also pushes forward for continued progress.”

And progress it has made. This year Birmingham was named an All-American city for the first time in decades and as a top city to visit this year because of the “50 Years Forward” campaign. Historical buildings such as the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, the Parisian and the Pfitiz are being renovated into luxury downtown condos to update the skyline. Regions Field and Railroad Park anchor the downtown area and serve as catalysts for the city’s businesses. UAB is one of the top medical centers in the world. These are all points of interest covered by the New York Times and USA Today.

The nation has taken notice of Birmingham, and the city is delivering. The work of so many from BIG Communications to the Birmingham Business Alliance to the local small business owners has worked to help the city change its image.

“I want us to be known as ‘The Portland of the South’,” Wiles said. “Birmingham has the tools to do anything beyond our wildest imaginations.”

It’s safe to say that “Bombingham” is a thing of the past.

3 Comments

  1. Stefanie Dunlap

    I had never thought of a city being a brand. I also had never heard of Birmingham being called “Bombingham.” This article brought several things to light for me and was informative, while also capturing my interest. I enjoyed the links created within the article, but I would have liked a few more, such as a link to “BIG Communications.”

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  2. Kalli Abernathy

    Thanks for writing such an article that blends my two biggest passions: public relations and downtown revitalization. I grew up in Vincent, a small town just outside of the big city, and I’ve always known that with hard work and some vision, Birmingham could return to its glory days. As a public relations student, I enjoy seeing good communication techniques and strategies lead the way to a vibrant new Birmingham. When I was growing up, my mother wouldn’t let me drive into “the city” alone or after a certain time of night. I grew up thinking Birmingham was dirty, scary and just over. No one cared about it; it looked tired. Imagine my surprise in my college years to discover how charming, innovative and alive Birmingham really is! I have recently had the pleasure of meeting Laura Kate Whitney, chief placemaker for REV Birmingham. As she was talking to me about the city that she loves so much, I realized that her job description is a bit off the beaten path, but she is in the public relations field on a grand stage. LK, as she is known around town, is one of the faces of the new Birmingham. She is a voice for the new Birmingham, right when the nation is beginning to listen to us again. I think that this article is an excellent read for public relations students and aficionados for two reasons. Firstly, is shows how powerful good public relations can be. It’s easy to get discouraged as a student, even when pursuing a degree in what you love. Your article reminds students that what we are learning and practicing and slaving over is important. The New York Times has deemed Birmingham newsworthy in a positive way for the first time in decades – all because of a solid public relations effort. Secondly, this article highlights Big Communications, which would be a great place for seniors graduating in the upcoming months to get into the field. Lots of students think that to begin a career in public relations, they need to move to Manhattan, Atlanta or Chicago. However, Birmingham is home to Big Communications, Lewis Communications and Intermark Group, to name a few standouts among many. The city is shifting and we can be a part of that change. If I could sum up how I feel about this article in one sentence, it would be this: Birmingham knows good public relations…and isn’t afraid to talk about it.

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  3. Connor Fox

    This article did a wonderful job of capturing the new growth and success of the Magic City. Considering the city’s past, one of the greatest challenges in moving forward was reestablishing itself in modern times. Believe it or not, Birmingham and Atlanta were both equally competitive, thriving cities in the South in the late 1970s, with Birmingham earning its first of two All-America City recognitions during that time. However, years of economic struggles, corruption and a population shift halted the city’s growth and allowed Atlanta to surpass it. As noted in the article, though, the All-America City distinction returned to Birmingham last year as a result of many recent revitalization efforts, especially in terms of public relations. The considerable impact of BIG Communications is remarkable — the “50 Years Forward” campaign single-handedly brought positive recognition to a new Birmingham. Successful rebranding has led to many improvements in restoring and modernizing the city. The “Birmingham Renaissance” has also become all about culture: a younger generation relocating themselves downtown and adopting the city lifestyle; an older generation of long-time residents who are reinvesting and discovering what the city now has to offer. It’s a time of significant change, and this article highlights how successful PR efforts have pushed Birmingham forward and allowed this change to be seen nationally. Great context provided with the mention of Birmingham Business Alliance and REV Birmingham, as well as the people of BIG Communications. Excellent read!

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