San Francisco is famished for good press these days.
The city’s image has been tarnished by a record rate of drug overdose deaths, businesses fleeing the Downtown core, homeless encampments multiplying on major thoroughfares like pop-up shops, rampant bipping, corruption scandals and a broken bureaucracy that seems intent on finding new and creative ways not to work.
But in an effort to highlight the positives of this fair city, such as San Francisco’s parks and its world-class restaurants, the local point people for next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit have hired tech-centric PR firm LaunchSquad to spin out positive press and actively push back on narratives considered unhelpful to the cause.
As one slightly cringey LaunchSquad pitch recently suggested, “you don’t become one of the most forward-looking cities in the world without ruffling a few feathers.”
“You know, we want the truth,” said Jason Mandell, co-founder of San Francisco-based LaunchSquad, whose clients have included Netflix and Uber. “So, yeah, I mean, we’re being a little bit aggressive.”
The firm is getting paid in the range of $100,000 to $200,000 for a contract that started in August. The deal was first announced in a story in PR Week, the industry trade magazine.
So far, the results include a Bloomberg piece that announced the city hit its APEC fundraising goal thanks to a tribal casino becoming the event’s lead sponsor. Last month, the New York Times ran a story in which San Franciscans confronted concerns of friends and family in other parts of the country, who often assume the city is the godforsaken hellscape they’ve seen described on national TV and in headlines.
“We did help facilitate that [New York Times] story. I mean, that was a placement,” Mandell said. “And I would say if we got a story like that for one of my corporate clients, especially like a startup—we work with a lot of startups—or if it was like a brand, you know, a brand reputation thing, I would argue it's worth millions of dollars and maybe tens of millions of dollars to their current market cap.”
That would be a hell of a return on investment if it could be corroborated, but that’s the thing about PR—it’s usually all vibes. Or, as Mandell notes, 106,000 likes on Instagram.
Shelling out somewhere up to $200,000 for a four-month campaign could be described as either way too much money or way too little, as a national and global narrative likely can’t be changed in a few months.
Mandell laughed at this observation but accepted the truth in it, and he noted that he hopes the PR campaign continues on well after APEC, which runs Nov. 12-18 and is expected to draw more than a dozen heads of state plus over 1,800 journalists and 1,200 CEOs.
Right now, the funds to support LaunchSquad’s mission are coming from private donations, and the total contract amounts to around 1% of the $20 million the city has privately raised to date to support its APEC hosting efforts. The Mayor's Office of Protocol deferred comment to Mandell for this story.
Having lived all over San Francisco for the last 26 years, Mandell believes the city by and large is in better shape than at any other point in the last three decades.
“Almost all neighborhoods, I would say, are better than they were before,” he said. “They’re better!”
And then he added, “Now, the Tenderloin is not.”
Much of the South of Market and Mid-Market areas are also in rough shape, but Mandell chalked that up to “dumb” business decisions. His firm actively pushed back on false headlines about multiple Target stores in the city shutting down, when it was actually just one near the Central Freeway.
“When they opened that store, I was like ... there’s another dumb one,” Mandell said. He added: “Whole Foods should have never opened up that store across from the Orpheum [Theatre]. It was a bad location decision. Now, maybe in 2019 it was a better decision, right? But it was a bad location decision. That's a good location for IKEA. It's not a good location for Whole Foods.”
The headlines LaunchSquad and APEC officials hope to see in the coming months will celebrate life and leisure in the city, which is a far different exercise than looking under the hood of how San Francisco works, or in many cases, doesn’t.
“What we are not talking about in this conversation is, like, politics and policy,” Mandell said. “You know, it's kind of a different piece of the equation, right? It's not really what we're interested in doing. It's not what this is about.”