Local News

Officials Try To Protect Durham's Image During Lacrosse Case

Posted April 22, 2006
Updated January 7, 2007

— Wherever reporters gather to cover the Duke lacrosse case, it's a good bet Rosemarie Kitchin is nearby.

In the past two weeks, the director of media relations and outreach for the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau showed up at a prayer service in front of Duke Chapel; on the Durham County courthouse steps as defense lawyers criticized District Attorney Mike Nifong; and inside the courtroom where an indicted player made his first appearance before a judge.

Celebrated two decades ago for its run-down Southern charm in the baseball movie "Bull Durham," Durham has become something of a chew toy since allegations surfaced last month that members of Duke University's lacrosse team raped a stripper at a team party.

Race relations, income levels, economic development, the interaction between Duke and the city -- all have been thrown into the mix in a search for an explanation for the scandal. It's Kitchin's job to stick up for the Bull City in that debate.

And so, outgoing and persistent, Kitchin follows the reporters, armed with an armful of bright red portfolios stuffed with promotional material about her city of 200,000. She hands out flyers or just a business card, and knowing the fastest way to a reporter's heart, she offers food from local restaurants and caterers.

"We knew we had to be on the street," said Reyn Bowman, president and chief executive of the convention and visitors bureau. "We had to be in touch with the media. ... Our job was to move quickly, and Rosemary did that."

Durham has long been stereotyped in North Carolina as the bad apple of the Triangle, as the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill are known. Raleigh is seen as the clean, if bland, state capital, while Chapel Hill is the bucolic university town. But Durham is viewed as troubled and crime-ridden, a rundown factory and tobacco town that has seen better days _ with the elite Duke in its midst.

After a black exotic dancer told police she was raped by white members of the Duke lacrosse team at an off-campus party, a frenzy of media descended on Durham to cover the case and the later indictment of two players. Bowman and Kitchin said their aim isn't to put a positive spin on the story, but provide an accurate context for national depictions of their city, which hasn't gotten this much screen time since "Bull Durham" hit theaters in 1988.

"When a frenzy hits like this, people are looking for contrasts, so the temptation is to slightly overemphasize the contrasts," Bowman said. "Durham has a bit of an image problem within a 50-mile radius anyway, that often contaminates the national coverage."

Durham officials are frustrated when writers describe Durham's population as poor and black. The city's population is 45.5 percent white and 43.8 percent black, while the median household income is $41,160, or just under the national average.

The "rundown factory town" image irks as well, given that the famed Research Triangle Park is a special tax district within Durham County and the high-end Streets at Southpoint regional mall anchors the county's southern end. The county's largest employers are Duke and its medical center, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline and IBM, which has its largest single facility in Durham at RTP.

Kitchin said she was shocked to see a television story show an under-construction condominium development to illustrate a reporter's statement that Durham "has seen better times."

"Is the glass half-empty, or is it half-full?" she said. "He's showing huge renovation projects as though they're slums."

Bowman said the bureau plans to commission national polling on Durham's image in the days ahead and then again in several months to try to assess the impact of the lacrosse case on the city's image.

But Duane Knapp, head of Anacortes, Wash.-based DEK BrandStrategy, a group that consults to convention and visitor bureaus on marketing and branding issues, said he wouldn't worry.

"The long-term challenge is a strategic one, not a reactionary one," Knapp said. "The challenge would be: What do we want our promise to be going forward, to make sure the city leadership and the convention and visitors bureau has the opportunity to decide what experience they want to offer. What kind of experience do we want visitors to enjoy when they're here?"

Bowman and Kitchin are used to battling on Durham's behalf. Their bureau has long urged local media outlets to dateline stories in Research Triangle Park from Durham, and to note Duke's location in Durham in stories about the university.

Kitchin's portfolio includes a handout on "25 Common Misperceptions about Durham and the reality behind them." Among the myths the handout mentions: "Race relations in Durham are hostile"; "Durham thinks of itself as the 'red-headed stepchild' of the Triangle"; and "Duke town/gown relationships are poor."

There's one image problem, though, that any number of glossy portfolios and box lunches can't undo -- the national media has come to town just as city officials have torn up sidewalks and rerouted streets for a redevelopment project aimed at sprucing up downtown.

"I think we've cornered the market on yellow and orange traffic barrels," Kitchin quipped.
Comments

Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all