Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Marketing the Preservation Message 

12-09-2015 17:35

When I was asked to speak before the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, I discussed with a friend what I might say. She asked: “Why is there even a need for a speech on promoting historic preservation in a place like Virginia? After all, with all we have here, if Virginia is not interested in historic preservation, who would be?”

Her response told me several things. It suggested that there is a perception at least among some of the general public that Virginia’s historic resources are viewed as an integral part of what Virginia is, that there is a sense that Virginia is, and should be, in the forefront of preservation.

Further, her observation implied that even those citizens who are well-disposed toward preservation may take for granted that the issue is settled, that Virginia has historic properties and communities, and will always have them.

I suspect that my friend’s comments may represent the feelings of many of our fellow citizens outside of the historic preservation movement in Virginia.

I have been around politics and public life a long time. I know how difficult it is to make an issue a part of the conventional wisdom, and the dangers of it being taken for granted. It is a tough trick, winning the public’s heart and then keeping your issue in the forefront of peoples’ minds. It is a never-ending process, one requiring constant vigilance.

So, I want to focus on “message and markets” and why inattention to those two things could have a dramatic impact on preservation efforts in Virginia in the months and years ahead. Much is at stake and some things could be at risk.

Competing for Attention

We are personally familiar with historic preservation; we know it; we value it; and too often we take it for granted. We assume that others understand it, so we do not have to explain it too much or defend it. But because we understand it, we also assume that no one else can possibly understand it the way we do. And that’s undoubtedly the case. But the fact is, sometimes those closest to preservation may not comprehend the scope of its challenges. They see the trees, but not always the forest.

And when one thinks further about it, there are many people outside of the preservation community who do not understand it. They are busy with their own lives -- their work, their families, soccer games, bowling leagues, and church work. There are many things competing for their attention.

It is important to remember that for many people there is a “Niagara Falls” of information, events, activities, requirements, and responsibilities impinging upon their daily calendars. They may appreciate historic preservation; they may even think it is important. But too often their impressions of preservation efforts are formed by the media stories, some good, some questionable.

So, in this climate it is not difficult to understand why preservation is rarely placed in perspective; why its value is not often placed into context.

This state of affairs is not good -- not good for preservation efforts or for our society. It means, quite simply, that the future of historic preservation efforts could be at risk. For what the public at large does not understand and value, the public will not long support and sustain.

So, where are we? And where does preservation go from here? These questions are important in light of the dramatic funding cuts to state and local budgets in recent years, to mention just one concern.

Making the Case for Support

In my opinion, the case for historic preservation in this country is not well stated. Context is too often ignored. Connections between education, work, preservation, and economic growth are not made. The links are not stressed. In short, the message of preservation’s value too often is not coherent, not contextual, and not communicated.

I believe that should be changed. The questions for us should be: How? When? By whom? The answers will not be found quickly or easily, and better public understanding and support will not be forthcoming immediately. And yet preservation does not have the luxury of time.

So what about the future? Can preservation count on public support? In my judgment, that will not happen unless the preservation community learns to market the message that preservation is important and that it is at risk.

Let’s look for a moment at the value of historic preservation in today’s society. We know what it is. We believe that the important images, words, voices, buildings, and places of the past should be preserved. Such things speak to us of times past. They can tell us for years to come who we are, where we came from, how we got here.

There is more.

Preservation is vision and can help us see where we are going, although it will not tell us precisely how we will get there.

Preservation is tapestry. The lives and experiences of those who have preceded us weave visible threads in the fabric of our society and in the patterns of our lives.

Preservation is experience. It permits us to look at those who lived before us -- people who struggled, loved, suffered, triumphed, and reflected on their condition. It was Virginia’s first governor, Patrick Henry, who said it best when he referred to such history as the lamp of experience guiding his steps.

As I prepared for this event, I re-read the report of the Commission to Study Historic Preservation, which was established during my term as governor. The report by David Brown, A Future for Virginia’s Past, came out in 1988. As with so many of Virginia’s historic treasures, the report seems timeless, and by any measure, holds up well today. The recommendations, as good as they were then, are just as applicable in today’s political and economic environment.

The report identified several overriding themes. One, that Virginia’s historic resources are among the most important in the nation and their protection both deserves and requires a strong commitment on the part of the commonwealth. Second, that the issues facing preservation are complex and their solution relies on the establishment of a productive partnership between the commonwealth, localities, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and individuals.

The report called for strengthened reviews of governmental actions, better enabling legislation for local preservation programs, and stronger state funding support. It also discussed the use of zoning to protect historic resources, the need for comprehensive planning, aesthetic zoning, regulation of demolitions -- all at the local level.

There was an impressive review of the impact of state actions on historic properties; and the recommendations regarding the review of state permits and licenses, transportation projects, and the maintenance and restoration of state-owned historic properties were all quite commendable. There also was an excellent section dealing with financial support and incentives for preservation, including basic operating services, state grants, easement donations, the Main Street program, and innovative financial techniques for preservation, among other things.

Now, think about all this for a moment.

How much of this do you think the public knows? They may be aware of -- and enthusiastic about -- the preservation of Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Pulaski Courthouse, the Adam Thoroughgood House, Old Town Portsmouth, and Alexandria, and many other wonderful places including important battlefields, that tell us so much about the past -- especially if such places are in their backyards. But my guess is, the public is generally not aware of the challenges confronting preservation efforts and the need for greater public understanding and support of preservation programs.

In my judgment, the preservation community is not doing enough to draw public attention to these activities and accomplishments, and that is so important to building a firmer foundation of public support for the future.

Marketing to Target Audiences

So why not just do it? Why not tell the world how important, how vital, how necessary preservation efforts are?

I am confident that all of you do it in your own way, but in today’s world, once is not enough. Simply put, repetition is the name of the game. The message must be told and told often. It is human nature to think that the value and accomplishments of preservation are self-evident, that a well-reasoned, well-delivered, and well-received speech on the subject should be sufficient. But remember my remarks a few moments ago about how busy people are, how many things are competing for their attention, how overwhelmed they are with information.

Indeed, it is a paradox that the more information-oriented our lives become, the more frequently we have to have the message repeated. Remember that Proctor & Gamble spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year reminding people to buy soap -- a product so basic that one would think we would not need reminding. Remember, too, that car salesmen and political candidates do the same thing for the same reason. Why should the preservation community be exempt from this fundamental operating principle?

I believe that preservation is too important to be left behind in the world of multiple messages. Its message of value in a world of change must be marketed and repeated -- over and over and over again.

So, who does that? That is a decision that you have to make within the preservation community, but it is a decision that you cannot make alone. In marketing your message, it is important to get the governor’s support, and to keep the legislators apprised and involved. In your communities, appoint “ambassadors for preservation” -- those business, civic, and educational leaders who are articulate, knowledgeable, and persuasive, and who will stand up and speak out for the importance of preservation efforts.

More specifically, however, let me recommend the adoption of a specific marketing plan by the preservation community, an approach that is based upon a thoughtful, professional, and carefully conceived strategy.

I cannot over-emphasize the value of the strategic approach, for a plan that is tactical rather than strategic is simply motion without direction. Your goal and strategy must be one of reaching the minds of many citizens with the message of the value of preservation, and that it should not be placed in jeopardy. The tactics simply involve the means by which you convey that message to your audience.

It is vital that the specific audience for your message be identified. Whether the message is targeted to a broad, general audience or a more select one, it is necessary to connect with those who influence or respond to that particular message.

I view audiences in a 3-P dimension: the press, the public, and the politicians. They are separate yet related audiences -- all interconnected. They listen at different levels, though, and respond to different stimuli. That is where the tactics become so critical once a strategy has been developed.

Remember that many in the “3-P audience” may not see historic preservation as a priority. Not that they oppose it, because they generally don’t. Not because they think it is unimportant; they probably think it is. But, in my judgment, many do not appreciate the necessity of a societal commitment to preservation, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Simply put, historic preservation is not on their radar screen.

There are some exceptions, of course, especially if the issue is unusual or involves high profile participants. The fight over the Manassas Battlefield several years ago fits this mold. The evolving dispute over development in Waterford, Va., could be another.

But those are exceptions that prove the rule. And those exceptions sometimes create their own set of problems, as I will discuss shortly.

On a day-to-day basis, however, I do not believe that the press, the public, and the politicians see clearly enough the role of historic preservation in ensuring that Virginia continues to be a place where people want to live, work, and raise their families. They do not see clearly enough that there is economic value in historic preservation. They do not see clearly enough what could result if our commitment to preservation is reduced. They do not see clearly enough the importance of historic preservation in managing changes in Virginia’s future.

What is missing is the broader context within which to view the issue of historic preservation. That’s where you come in, the leaders of the historic preservation movement.

The question is: How best to exert that leadership role?

Putting Preservation in Context

Let me respectfully observe that, while conferences such as this are critically important for sharing information and developing strategies, many in historic preservation spend a great deal of time talking to one another. The fact is that we need to better market the message outside of rooms like this one. More time is needed talking to the 3 P’s on a regular basis, so that the press, the public, and the politicians can begin to see historic preservation in context. So they won’t take preservation for granted. So they won’t see preservation as always opposed to growth. So they won’t see preservation as an attempt to simply cling to a past they don’t recognize or appreciate.

Sometimes it helps to see something more clearly if life without it can be imagined. Imagine Virginia without Mount Vernon or Monticello. Without Waterford and the Blue Ridge. Without Old Town Alexandria and Poplar Forest. The list could go on.

Imagine the commonwealth without the Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields, the Barter Theatre, the covered bridges of Patrick County. Where would Virginia be without the Lawn and Rotunda at the University of Virginia? Without the state capitol building, Oatlands, the John Marshall House, the Jamestown Church, and the Cape Henry Lighthouse -- to mention a few others.

Virginia has been a growing and prosperous state through time for many reasons. But, I believe that without our commitment to preservation, Virginia would be a place far fewer people would want to be.

So, the next time you encounter someone who is tempted to take historic preservation for granted, or who disregards its importance entirely, challenge them to imagine a Virginia without any of these historic treasures.

Tell them the story about how Mount Vernon and Monticello were saved -- and how easily those stories could have had different endings. Tell them about efforts to restore James Madison’s Montpelier. Tell them about the vitality of Staunton, Bedford, Winchester, and Fredericksburg, and how so many other cities in this country have not been so fortunate. Tell them that these things have not been preserved solely by divine providence, but by the hard work and commitment of many who believe in the value of historic preservation.

Don’t let anyone take for granted the effort that has gone into making things as they are, and don’t let anyone take for granted the idea that these things will always remain.

When you want to understand the context in which we should think about the issue of historic preservation, this is a good place to start.

Preservation and Economic Growth

But getting people to stop taking our historic treasures for granted is only part of the challenge. We must overcome the stereotype that historic preservation is an enemy of economic growth. This is especially important if we are to build and maintain 3-P support for preservation in a time of deepening budget problems, when everyone is looking for programs to cut.

The fact is that people too often think about historic preservation as an adversary of economic development and growth. This is a direct outgrowth of the 3-P’s lack of understanding of historic preservation in a broader context. Having no broader context, they are more likely to pay attention to preservation in those instances in which there is great controversy.

Most of these controversies have something do with a fight against development encroaching upon a historic location. I am not suggesting that such fights should always be avoided. They are sometimes necessary. But because this is the only exposure to preservation for many people, they tend to think of it solely in these terms. And that is a problem.

It is critically important to the effort to build and maintain ongoing public support for historic preservation that it not be seen largely as an obstruction to economic growth. It is even more important to the effort to build political support that this impression not be ingrained in the thinking of the press, the public, and the politicians.

When I was governor of Virginia, one of the major themes of my administration was targeted economic growth. Everything I did related back to the goal of creating selected opportunities for economic growth -- including the support of historic preservation.

I used historic preservation as a tool to promote growth, and used the proceeds from our economic growth to help fund preservation efforts. I understood that no choice between the two needed to be made, but that preservation and growth could be mutually inclusive.

Too often, though, the issues are not well framed; this broader context is lost and decision-makers see the issues of preservation and economic growth as mutually exclusive. If given such a choice, many officials will put historic preservation on the back burner -- especially in a tough budget climate. So, we must do a better job of demonstrating that this is a false choice, and we should work overtime to make sure it is a choice that is rarely, if ever, executed.

My advice is to work with public officials before contentious issues arise. Work with developers and others who might be seeking to build or expand their operations. Head off problems and controversies before they arise.

Just as importantly, don’t remain silent when you see economic growth opportunities that can proceed in a way that complements the historic character of Virginia. Be there to lend support to such proposals. Be there, especially, when projects will benefit lower-income populations.

Be there when it is not expected and prove that preservation can coexist with, and be an important part of, efforts to bring economic opportunity to areas that most need it.

And in the process, you might find it a good way to make new friends and allies, people who can help promote your goals; friends who might be more inclined to work with you to preserve a healthy balance between historic preservation and economic activity.

Preservation and the “Quality of Life” Advantage

If you can persuade people to see historic preservation as a tool to maintain a community’s essential character as well as a means to manage change in a dynamic and growing economy, what about those who choose to see historic preservation simply in the context of the past? This is particularly true of some of the younger generation. When asked about historic preservation, many younger people ask: “Why do you want to live in the past?” They see preservation simply as over-exuberant reverence for a time gone by, and believe that such attitudes distract them from moving into the future.

For some, they see it as a choice between a turntable and a CD player. Between a rotary phone and a cell phone. Between a black-and-white TV and color.

More of them must understand that preservation is more than reverence, though reverence is important. Preservation is the way we enhance the essential character of our state: it is the foundation upon which we will build the future.

Young people must be shown that historic preservation is in their own interest and that it can be an important component in seeing to it that Virginia remains a “Land of Opportunity” within which they can build their own future. If that is to happen, of course, Virginia must remain able to attract investment and promote growth.

And how do you do that? Let me again use my experience as governor to illustrate the point.

When one shops for a computer and has a choice between two models of comparable quality, the purchase is most likely to be made from the vendor or store that shows the most interest in one’s needs. The same is true in attracting investors. I wanted Virginia to show potential investors that the commonwealth was interested in them, and in their success. So, I pointed to tangible examples.

I showed them that by improving our infrastructure, Virginia was demonstrating to investors that we cared about their ability to reach markets, wherever in the world they might be.

By encouraging the study of languages and geography, and by investing in our colleges and universities, we showed investors that we were interested in creating the kind of climate in which they could feel comfortable, as well as the kind of schools they would want their children to attend.

By doing all we could to promote the skills and abilities of our workforce, we showed investors that we cared about the productivity of their operations.

And, yes, by preserving the best of Virginia’s historic and natural treasures, we showed investors that we cared about our quality of life, we cared about our history, and we cared about making Virginia a place people want to live and to visit. By making the most of our advantages, we showed investors that locating in this area was in their enlightened self-interest.

By framing preservation as a “Virginia Advantage,” we can persuade the 3-P audience, including young people, that historic preservation is to their advantage.

So, in addition to “working the crowd” of the 3-P types, also take every opportunity to go to events and clubs where students, young professionals, and other groups of young people gather. Make sure that they see the advantages of preservation. Get them involved in your efforts and historic preservation’s future. And use technology to get your point across.

No Time to Lose

Edmund Burke once said that the essence of leadership was the ability to “…represent the future to the present.” If our people do not see the value in preservation, then preservation has no future.

The 3-P’s may think that we’ve already succeeded. The 3-P’s may believe that we’ve already made the investments. If that is the case, then the 3-P’s do not understand the context.

But you do. And it is your job -- our job -- to make sure the 3-P’s do too. We have no time to lose.

I am reminded of the story of an old man who was planting trees on an Israeli kibbutz. A young man working at the kibbutz approached him and asked why he was making such an effort; after all it would take 50 years for the trees to grow and he wouldn’t be around to enjoy the shade. “Fifty years,” replied the old man. “I’d better hurry.”

Time goes by fast. I remember when we convened the Governor’s Commission to Study Historic Preservation. It was 1987, and it had been 20 years since the General Assembly created the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. It was 20 years until Virginia would be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the landing at Jamestown.

It all seems like yesterday, to me anyway. But we have only four years left till 2007. It all happened in the blink of a historical eye.

The theme of your conference is “Making the Case: Preservation Solutions for Virginia’s Future!” All Virginians, indeed all Americans, are fortunate that the Preservation Alliance of Virginia is working to make the case, striving to shape a new preservation agenda for a new era. I commend you for your energy and thank you for your vision and commitment, and I leave here today hopeful of preservation’s future in Virginia.

Publication Date: Summer 2004


Author(s):Gerald L. Baliles

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