STOCKTON — By the time Morgan Spurlock of "Super Size Me" fame visited in the fall to film a segment for a new show on CNN, so many reporters had come before to document the city's failures that people had a good idea what to expect.
The city first distinguished itself for a national audience several years ago, with a foreclosure rate that remains among the highest in the nation. Forbes magazine twice rated Stockton as the country's most miserable city, and that was before it filed for bankruptcy protection and recorded a record number of homicides last year.
The coverage was unflattering, and pride was hurt.
So, shortly before Spurlock arrived in this inland port city of nearly 300,000 people, a group of business leaders arranged with a political consultant in Sacramento to monitor coverage of Stockton and try to improve it.
The effort involves scrutinizing reporters' itineraries and steering them to more favorable events and institutions. It is an exercise in crisis communications writ large, done with a belief shared by boosters in such places as Cleveland and Detroit that a city's sunken image can be repaired.
"The impression that was coming across was one of a defeated city, and you know, the coverage, especially from outside of the area, was one of helplessness," said the consultant, Roger Salazar, whose experience ranges from the Clinton White House to a childhood in nearby Lodi (where "things got bad and things got worse" in one Creedence Clearwater Revival song).
"We're going to punch back and we're going to make sure that folks know that this is a resilient community and a proud community that cares about where we're going."
Nearly every U.S. city tries to nurture its reputation, mostly through chambers of commerce and visitor bureaus and often in conjunction with tourism promotion. The effect of the effort, which supports a small industry of tourism experts and public relations professionals, is difficult to measure, and some practitioners and observers dismiss any effort to influence coverage directly.
"People who look at these things usually see them as you're trying to wallpaper over a hole in the wall," said Gary Pettey, an associate professor of communication at Cleveland State University. "They're desperation, more than anything else."
Cleveland became notorious for its pollution when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in the 1960s. A decade later, the city defaulted on its debts.
A campaign to convince outsiders that "Cleveland's a Plum," Pettey said, was less enduring than one more organic alternative, "The Mistake by the Lake."
The founders of Stockton Forward, the group promoting Stockton, include the presidents of the University of the Pacific and Bank of Stockton, the Food 4 Less grocery chain and two developers, Fritz Grupe and Dea Spanos Berberian of A.G. Spanos Cos. They are concerned, among other things, about the impact relentless negativity may have on business.
"There's no question about it: Every time there's a crime committed, it gets blown up in the newspaper," said Doug Eberhardt, the Bank of Stockton's president and chief executive officer.
Bob Gutierrez, director of government affairs for Food 4 Less, said that after Stockton became the nation's largest city to seek bankruptcy protection, "A bunch of us got together and started talking and we thought, 'You know, how are we going to get the community organized to try to basically get people to not feel essentially horrible about the situation.' "
Grupe said the city has "a lot of positive things to talk about," and Eberhardt said it is "still a great community to do business."
The group's goals are relatively modest. In December, Stockton Forward helped organize and pay for the repair of cracked concrete around a highly visible plaque at City Hall, eliminating one image photographers previously used to convey a sense of decay.
Speaking with reporters
After a bruising report about Stockton on Fox News' "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" last month, Stockton Forward spokeswoman Ashley Robinson scolded reporter Griff Jenkins in an email.
"The story you told is one your colleagues on other Fox News shows did about four or five months ago," she wrote. "Wouldn't you prefer to bring something a bit more newsworthy to your viewers?"
Douglass Wilhoit, chief executive officer of the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce, said that "if Stockton Forward is looking to influence the national and international reporters to help us get jobs, we're all for that."
However, he said, "I'm skeptical, at best, that the larger media really cares about the feel-good stories."
Even if reporters did care, said Simon Anholt, a British consultant who studies the reputations of countries, the potential influence on viewers likely would be minimal.
"If they hear bad news about a place they think is bad, then it makes it worse," he said. "If they hear good news about a place they think is bad, then they ignore it. What I say to places is just, 'Don't try to bribe the media to tell boring stories about how successful you are. Do something amazing and you'll be in the papers straight away."
Reporters noticed, for example, that Stockton went a full month, in January, without a reported homicide. Its first reported murder of the year, last weekend, follows 71 homicides in 2012.
Other achievements are more nuanced, and business leaders in beleaguered cities have found they require promotion.
In Detroit, where a predominant image is that of urban ruin, an effort to turn the city's downtown into an information technology center, "Outsource to Detroit," has gained some positive attention.
"Kind of the beauty of the PR campaign is there is the third-party credibility in a respected news source that is saying positive things, rather than an ad that's bought and paid for that doesn't have that third-
party credibility," said Don Tanner, a consultant involved in the campaign.
However, Tanner said, "There has to be something of interest there. If you want coverage on a wide national scale, you have to have some things of interest to that larger audience."
Negative views at home
For Stockton Forward, the challenge is not only a larger audience, but readers at home.
Five years ago, Stockton commissioned a survey to measure how residents of this city with a minor league baseball team and an annual asparagus festival felt about life where they lived. The results were staggeringly bad, with residents expressing a more negative view of their home city than in nearly any other city polled.
"Drearytown, USA," a headline in The (Stockton) Record read.
The city planned to conduct the survey annually, but it abandoned the poll after seeing the first year's results.
Stockton already was trying to improve its reputation. About the time the survey of residents was released, Stockton hired a consultant to develop a brand for the city. He recommended "Celebrate!"
"The whole problem with Stockton," the Seattle-based consultant, Roger Brooks, said recently, is "people in Stockton think worse of Stockton than people outside of Stockton think. You go to people in Stockton, you say, 'What do you think of Stockton?' They say, 'This place sucks.' "
Brooks, who is fond of Stockton, said Stockton Forward may have some success if it is able to improve residents' image of the city.
"Doing PR to the outside world," he said, "isn't going to change anything."
The city is not funding Stockton Forward, nor is it overseeing the effort. Mayor Anthony Silva said he supports the group because it is an example of "people putting money where their mouth is."
However, Silva said, "I don't want to put a false perception out there, either. I'm not going to say Stockton, California, is the safest city in America and it's the best place to come and live and find a job."
In an attempt to connect with Stockton residents, Stockton Forward held a public forum and recently posted billboards throughout the city encouraging residents to "join us."
Members of the group said they have raised nearly $200,000 in private donations for the campaign. They declined to say how much they are paying Sala-zar, and he would say only that he is providing services at a discounted rate.
Publicity woes continue
Before Spurlock visited Stockton, Salazar learned that he planned to spend time at a food bank and with police. He wrote a letter encouraging Spurlock to broaden his interests.
Spurlock's show has not yet aired, and its producer declined to comment.
As it happened, Stockton broke its annual homicide record in October, the week Spurlock was in Stockton. The Record placed him at a crime scene.
"Of all the luck," the newspaper's longtime columnist, Michael Fitzgerald, wrote at the time. "Out of 41 weeks so far this year, CNN shows up on the one when the homicide record falls."
"Stockton," Fitzgerald said later, "has a genius for bad publicity."