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Communications Column: Defending Fargo's Honor

Adrienne Olson

National media treatment of iconic Fargo has become somewhat polarized. On one hand, we are a beacon of economic hope, with our low unemployment rate, stable housing market and thriving business community. On the other, we’re an easy target for “fun pokers” thanks to the Cohen brothers’ cult classic film.

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National media treatment of iconic Fargo has become somewhat polarized. On one hand, we are a beacon of economic hope, with our low unemployment rate, stable housing market and thriving business community. On the other, we’re an easy target for “fun pokers” thanks to the Cohen brothers’ cult classic film.

All of us in the chamber profession are de facto representatives of our cities, which can lead to some interesting phone calls from national reporters. In December 2010, I received a call from the Just Born candy company of Bethlehem, Pa., and was told their sales team was given an ultimatum at their 2009 convention: Make your goals and the 2010 convention will be in Hawaii; miss your goals and you’re going to Fargo.

The AP headline: “Not Exactly a Treat: Candy Co. Staff Meet in ND.”

For weeks I received calls from news outlets all over the country, and my inbox filled with Google alerts. In case you find yourself defending your town’s honor to the world, here is what I learned: Never repeat the reporter’s tough/negative questions.

Reporter: So what do you think of Just Born holding their convention in Fargo as a punishment for not meeting their sales goals? Pitting Fargo against Hawaii sets you up as the opposite of paradise.

Me: Fargo as a punishment? Not hardly. The convention-goers will tell you they are having a ball, living it up with sleigh rides, nights on the town and dinner at the chalet. They’re getting a dose of Fargo’s finest. It’s only the opposite of paradise until you get here.

Official quote: Chamber spokesperson Adrienne Olson says they visited “Fargo as a punishment,” adding “it’s only the opposite of paradise until you get here.”

Anything you post on your Chamber or your personal blog can and will be used against you. I worked with the Just Born people during their visit to make sure they had a great time. They are wonderful people who gave no impression of feeling “punished.” They used their time in the spotlight to shout Fargo’s praises and even promised to return to do some community service as a team. I wrote about them on the Chamber’s and my own blog. My published quote:

“While the 10-day forecast will treat them to temperatures in the low teens (Honolulu will be in the low 80s), the group has local manufactures’ representative and veteran candy broker Bob Ward working to turn this ‘punishment’ into a visit they won’t soon forget.”

The reporter added: “Also, the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Don’t rely on the media to tell your version of the story. In hindsight, the opportunity to tell this story myself on behalf of my Chamber and wonderful hometown was obvious. I have the tools: a robust audience, strong social networks, blogs, video and still cameras, unfettered access to the media darlings. What a perfect opportunity to be my own reporter. The national media wanted the sensationalism of the “punishment” angle. Some of my actions and words actually helped them get their scoop. But I knew the real story about how much these people were falling in love with my town. I told the story to reporters over and over again, but what made the airwaves was “Fargo as a punishment.”

Capitalize on the attention. When the media storm hits, don’t bother searching for your rain coat. Just jump in. As people across the country Google “Fargo punishment,” make sure your story exists too. In fact, OWN the story. I collected positive quotes from our Just Born friends that are sure to show up with fun pictures in our Chamber’s next community profile. When they return for their service work, our Chamber will be the one to break the story.

Fargo has since secured the title in The Weather Channel’s National Championship for the country’s “toughest weather city.” I was ready for the calls, armed with talking points and facts on how Fargo’s weather — unlike many other cities — rarely, if ever, results in a fatality. Plus, I had quotes from Fargoloving longtime residents and newcomers alike. Unfortunately, this news broke at the same time the mighty Red River broke its banks for what’s become our annual spring flood fight. And that’s another lesson in national media attention entirely.


Adrienne Olson is the communications/community relations manager for the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo (ND/MN) Chamber of Commerce and chair of ACCE’s Communications Division. At ACCE’s convention in Los Angeles, Aug. 3–6, she will serve on a workshop panel discussing how chambers can deal with negative media reports. She can be reached at (218) 359-0524 or aolson@fmwfchamber.com.

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