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Hawaii's Ambivalent Image in the Mainland Press

By Rob Kay & Jeff Bloom

The national press, it seems, can’t get enough bad news about the Aloha State. The May 31st issue of Forbes ranked Hawaii a dismal ranking 160th out of 162 U.S. cities as a place to do technology.

If you read the New York Times you certainly would not have missed the front page story on Monday, May 17th entitled "Ailing Hawaii Pins Its Hopes on Hollywood". The story lamented that the "biggest economic fish caught in Hawaii this year" was not a high tech start up or a renewed crush of Asian Visitors—rather it was the hunky head lifeguard of Baywatch.

Going back a few months, on February 19th, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story entitled "Makeshift Junkyards Take Root on Kauai", examined a festering "vehicular blight" on the Garden Island. Kauai, the Journal stated, is becoming known as the "Garbage Isle" because of the approximately 5000 abandoned cars, which lay deteriorating in front yards and cane fields throughout the island. To add insult to injury, the piece went on to discuss how, despite the obvious eyesore, the county and state bureaucrats couldn’t seem to agree upon how to dispose of the derelict autos.

It’s not that Forbes, the WSJ or the Times were out to get us.

Nobody likes hearing bad news but somehow we’re especially sensitive when a Mainland publication reminds us that there might be trouble in paradise. It’s human nature not to miss what’s going on in our own backyard and often, it’s easier for outsiders to provide a mirror. Leave it to a well-endowed organization such as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times or Forbes to send a highly skilled journalist across the Pacific to take on such a task.

So what’s going on here?

Although some politicians would beg to differ with us, it’s rather simplistic to dismiss Hawaii’s treatment in the Mainland press as Republican-orchestrated "hit pieces".

Let’s look at a few of the pieces that have appeared in the recent past. As you may recall, a few years ago the WSJ ran another less than glowing front page report on the homeless situation on Maui. Then there was the now famous "People’s Republic of Hawai’i" piece in Forbes a year or so ago deploring the state of our economy and our bloated bureaucracy. Last summer, Upside, a respected Silicon Valley publication, featured a column by former Hawaii resident, David James, on how difficult it is for technology companies to do business in Hawaii.

If the truth be known none of these pieces, no matter how hard to stomach, were really off the mark. The stories were written by competent journalists who did their homework. With possibly the exception of the now famous "People’s Republic of Hawai’i" piece by Forbes, none of them had an ideological axe to grind. (Despite Forbe’s typical preachy tenor, there much to be learned in that piece.)

So why does everyone seem to be gunning for us? Is it paradise envy, the unvarnished truth?

We think the answer is all of the above. A trouble-in-paradise story is always easy to sell to an editor. The theme is as old as the hills. Let’s take a closer look at the Kauai story for a moment. The Garden Island doesn’t have a monopoly on bureaucratic squabbling and abandoned cars. We’re certain you can find this kind of scenario elsewhere. However, when this combination appears in "paradise" it’s pretty hard for an editor to pass up.

Likewise, the New York Times piece about Baywatch was ideal fodder for Mainland consumption. The whole ugly Baywatch episode perfectly crystallizes Hawaii’s pathetic economic situation.

Less than flattering coverage of Hawaii is not going to disappear anytime soon. We’re just too tempting an editorial target and often we’re our own worst enemy. As Jim Carlton the WSJ reporter told us, "Hawaii is always on the national radar screen". Our guess is that Hawaii has and always will be held up to scrutiny. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being on the radar screen cuts both ways.

We think a smart marketer can turn this situation on its head and, in Hawaii’s favor. How so? Journalists, if nothing else, are generally open- minded people. More often than not, they will give you the benefit of the doubt. When the time comes and we have a good story to tell the Mainland press, we believe we’ll have an audience willing to listen. When the people of Hawaii decide it’s time to create a more business friendly environment we believe the mainland press will be there to help us get the word out.

In the meantime, we might start taking seriously what Mainland publications are pointing out over and over again: Hawaii is business-unfriendly, over-taxed and mired in bureaucracy.

Are we doing enough to rectify this? Some measures have been taken, but frankly we could be doing a whole lot more.

What we believe Hawaii is lacking is a long-range economic development plan that the whole community—business, education and government can follow. Without the entire ohana buying in and striving towards a goal in a concerted manner, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.

Instead of looking at what the mainland press is saying as a wake up call, we’ve behaved like an alcoholic in denial. We choose simply not to deal with our problems. Periodically we have to look ourselves squarely in the mirror and make honest assessments. If we don’t, there’s no question that the Mainland press will be more than happy to hold up that mirror for us. Just like a drunk the morning after, the reflection won’t be a pretty sight.

Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based public relations practitioner who works with technology companies in Hawaii and Silicon Valley. He can be reached at rkay@pactechcom.com or 539-3627. Jeff Bloom is the founder of Computer Training Academy/Network Resource Center, a computer education/consulting firm based in Honolulu. His contact is jeffb@cta.net or 839- 1200.

Honolulu Advertiser - Sunday June 6, 1999

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