printed 06/19/20

‘It takes 20 years to build a good reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.’— Warren Buffet

Ocean City should have thought differently three or four years ago, when it became evident that the reputation crisis it faces now was already taking shape.

As City Councilman Dennis Dare recalled this week at the City Council meeting, that was when a rise in troubling behavior and ugly incidents led the council to consider responding with a particularly tough plan drawn from Myrtle Beach’s crowd control playbook.

The plan, which had the unanimous backing of the Police Commission, was nevertheless rejected as being bad for business. It might have been too harsh, at that, but hindsight tells us that two or three years of discomfort might have been worth it had it ended then the problems that the resort must confront now.

One of the factors at work here is the general misconception that “image,” and “reputation” are the same thing. They aren’t.

Image or brand, according to marketing experts, is how the customer wants to be perceived by the public, while a reputation is how the public perceives the customer as the result of personal experience or other influences outside the marketing arena.

These two things should coincide, but they often don’t, especially when friendly beach scenes are juxtaposed with videos of people running wild on the Boardwalk.

Although fingers will be pointed at the resort’s advertising program for targeting the wrong market, the presence of recent high school graduates in June, and, some will say in coded terms, an influx of minority youths from the region, but none of that is so.

The problem is that Ocean City has a reputation in some quarters as a place to get away with just about anything.

Responsible for that, in part, is the tendency of government and business to protect the desired image by glossing over unpleasant truths, or just not acknowledging them at all.

Social media, and before that, word of mouth, rendered that approach unworkable. Worse, when something out of the ordinary does occur, this practice of papering over the cracks in the facade makes a bad situation seem shockingly worse, because it’s so out of character with the very image that the resort labors to protect.

The fact is, Ocean City is not immune from the baser human instincts or of society, so there is no point in pretending that it is, only to have the public be so greatly disappointed when it realizes that bad things do happen in good towns.

Fair or not, Ocean City has several reputations: a place to have just plain fun, a beach town where almost anything goes as long as it makes money, a resort where people can do all kinds of things they wouldn’t do at home, and a place where bad behavior often goes unpunished because it’s difficult to single out bad actors in the middle of a crowd.

The reputation it doesn’t have and must work to achieve is as a town that has its limits and will see to it that as many people as possible understand that.

Police Chief Ross Buzzuro said it best this week when he told council that Ocean City cannot arrest its way out its current difficulties. But it can send a message that it’s going to try, as it also makes clear that this time there’s no backing down.

Unlike image building, which is the job of advertising, establishing a reputation is more of a public relations and public information exercise. Posting weekly arrest figures, for instance, does admit crime exists, but it also says this is what’s being done about people who cross the line.

Ocean City also has to realize that its residents need to be happy and aware of what government is doing and why.

Many of them, whether they know it or not, are social media ambassadors for the resort. If they speculate or gossip online about this or that incident, because they don’t have the facts, that’s thousands of misrepresentations being spread to thousands and thousands more social media subscribers, and, ultimately to news media outlets everywhere.

To end the torrent of unfounded theories, conjecture and gossip that flows out of town every time a disturbance of any significance occurs, officials will have to acknowledge these circumstances when they occur, report to the public as much information as they can as quickly as they can, and be straightforward with the public throughout the process.

To do that, Ocean City government must add to its public information division so it can handle a greater volume of news releases, statistics, and other data. It also needs to establish a higher social media profile, managed by social media personnel.

The public relations battle to develop a reputation that will on its own protect Ocean City’s chosen image will hinge on the resort’s ability to show, rather than say, that it is doing what it said it would do.

Considering that Ocean City spends millions of dollars to cultivate a specific brand, it makes sense to back up that investment with a no-nonsense reputation that can only be forged with everyone’s cooperation.

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