Culture Clash: How to solve San Francisco’s PR problem

From famous writers to musicians to politicians, many inspiring change agents have called San Francisco home. And with stunning views of The Golden Gate Bridge to sunsets over The Pacific Ocean – San Francisco has one of the most iconic cityscapes in the world.

To put it simply: this city shouldn’t have any problem with public relations.

But lately, a tenuous relationship has formed between native San Franciscans and the newcomers in the booming tech industry. This culture clash has been well documented in the press and has been giving this great city, a bad name.

I grew up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Currently, I travel to the city from the east coast on a regular basis. During recent visits, I’ve been dismayed by the state of my hometown and frustrated with the negative press coverage from the SF Gate to The New York Times.

As a native San Franciscan and someone who works with the tech industry, I wanted to add to the conversation about how San Francisco can educate newcomers, manage negative press and reclaim its identity as one of the loveliest places to live on Earth.

First, it is important to understand that San Francisco has always been full of dichotomy given its small size and bizarre landscape. You can’t see the views in Pacific Heights – one of the most expensive zip codes in the country – without passing by the housing projects on Baker Street or in Lower Fillmore. You can’t go shopping in Union Square without driving through the Tenderloin. You can’t go for a jog through Golden Gate Park without noticing the homeless.

Second, everyone should recognize that San Francisco’s public relations problem is not only because of insensitive commentary by a few jerks, but also due to real world policy issues that can’t be solved by one person, one administration or one protest.

Here is a list of the major challenges facing the city. These challenges not only threaten San Francisco’s image, but also point to larger systemic issues that need more than good PR to be resolved:

The disappearing African American population: In the past 20 years, San Francisco has lost over 30% of its black community. The San Francisco Examiner reports, “San Francisco’s black population was 78,931 in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2010, it had declined to 50,768, a 35.7 percent decrease, comprising just 6.3 percent of The City’s population.”

Limited access to affordable housing: Currently, the wait list for Section 8 Affordable Housing in San Francisco is closed and only 6% of the city’s housing stock qualifies under it. Section 8 housing is a proven way to integrate people from all backgrounds into urban life.

Lack of adequate housing development: San Francisco has seen 20% population growth since the 1980s, but the development of new housing during this same time frame has been slower compared to other major cities. Mayor Ed Lee recently addressed the housing crisis as a top priority for his administration, but this is something that can’t be fixed overnight. With 825,000 people completing for 376,924 housing units, it is no wonder San Franciscans feel like there isn’t anywhere live.

High costs of housing compared to average wages: Edward Glaeser writes for Bloomberg about the conundrum with housing prices compared to wages in San Francisco that have “increased by 385 percent from 1970 to 2010, while real wages there rose only 38 percent during that period.” This fact only compounds the housing issues listed above.

Pervasive homelessness: San Francisco is known for its large homeless population and clearly, the current housing crisis isn’t going to help. But this issue is more complicated than just supply and demand. There are many homeless people who are mentally ill in need of medical care, as well as runaways and those who want to live outside of societal boundaries. Those who complain about the homeless need to understand that there is no simple solution.

Fewer children than any other city: Only 13% percent of San Francisco residents are under the age of 14. Fewer children and families make it hard to create sustainable communities that understand the long-term needs of the city.

As the list of newly minted millionaires continues to grow and fancy buses take people to and from work in Silicon Valley, it is easy to blame the burgeoning tech industry for widening the gap between the rich and poor. But no matter what industry we are in, we all need to do our part to make sure we keep San Francisco’s values intact, while supporting critical changes to the city.

I am not an urban policy expert, but I do understand the value of communication when it comes to telling the right story, promoting brand values and building consensus around the decisions that need to be made to improve a brand’s reputation

Below are a few ideas to combat the bad press that threatens to ruin San Francisco’s good reputation. While these won’t solve all the city’s problems, the ideas below are meant to generate a conversation and create support for solutions:

Promote San Franciscan values of tolerance, acceptance and creativity. San Francisco has been known as a place where anyone and everyone should be welcome no matter their religion, race or creed. If you work in technology and value innovation, freethinking and the ability to create change in the world, you should align with the traditional San Francisco values. San Franciscans need to help educate the city’s newcomers about the tradition and legacy of the city.

Tell the story of the traditional San Franciscan: There are thousands of people who live and work in San Francisco outside of the tech industry. Firefighters, teachers, police officers, waiters, chefs, architects, lawyers, doctors, nurses have all lived in the city for decades. These people need to be celebrated and valued – they are not expendable and should not be pushed out of sight or out of mind.

Host a public policy hack-a-thon: With so many smart, innovative people in San Francisco, it would be great to see more interest in the public good rather than securing the next IPO. Public policy hack-a-thons could help to educate new residents and come up with innovative solutions for the major policy challenges at hand.

Talk about private investment in public problems: With all the wealth in San Francisco, it makes sense that private investors should help solve public problems. And there are projects in San Francisco with this goal in mind. For example, HOPE SF is a public-private partnership to create sustainable public housing integrated within the city. It is important that projects like this and others get discussed alongside the negative conversation about the housing crisis.

Mayor Ed Lee outlined his 2014 agenda this past week and it shows there is a lot to be done to move things forward. But as these policy changes are implemented, it is important that San Franciscans talk to each other about the challenges facing the city and how to address them with a sense of compassion, social justice – and of course, love and a few peace signs.

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