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Polishing Mississippi

A P.R. man is on a mission to change the nation’s and his fellow residents’ notions about the state.
By Meg Laughlin
Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
Several years ago, Mississippi businessman Rick Looser struck up a conversation with a 12-year-old from Connecticut sitting next to him on a plane. Upon learning Looser was from Jackson, the boy asked if he saw Ku Klux Klan members on the street every day and whether he hated all black people.
Looser tried to set him straight, but when he returned to his public relations firm and shared the story, he and his colleagues agreed those kind of stereotypical perceptions are the rule, not the exception. They decided to launch a campaign to improve the state’s image.
The campaign, called “Mississippi … Believe It!” debuted recently with the release of 14 poster designs and a Web site (mississippibelieveit.com). The first audience is Mississippi schoolchildren, who Looser said need to learn a more positive story of their home state.
Looser spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about the good ol’ boys, great writers and the enduring value of good spin:
Are the lists that rank Mississippi last in important social services wrong?
No, they’re true. We don’t deny that. But our list fatigue is making us feel worse, and that doesn’t help. The campaign is an effort to help us see there are things to feel good about, despite the lists.
But if a P.R. campaign can’t change the reality, why bother?
It would be disingenuous to say that I truly feel this campaign will change things in Mississippi or people’s hearts and minds about Mississippi. What we hope to accomplish is to get people – starting here in our own schools – to look at Mississippi a little closer and see there is more to it than the rankings. We want people to think more about Mississippi, rather than react.
What part of the bad image of Mississippi would you most like to change?
Our worst enemy is the civil rights atrocities that occurred here in the ’50s and ’60s. Whites did terrible things to blacks and all-white juries declared them not guilty. Now, 40 to 50 years later, we want people to know we’re not stuck there. White reporters and investigators got the cases reopened. Black and white jurors rendered justice. Things are no longer run by old, short, fat white guys smoking cigars. We’re no longer a state of good ole boys.
Don’t you worry that people will say you protest too much?
I know what you mean. I often tell clients in trouble in the newspaper, who want us to protest it, that we should let it pass rather than write about it. Otherwise, a one-day story about their trouble becomes a four-day story. But how people see Mississippi is not a passing, fleeting thought. A whole generation of people, like that 12-year-old on the plane, tend to see us as backwards. So, yes, we’re kind of defensive about it, though I’d prefer to call it “aggressive.”
One of the posters begins: “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write.” Then it says no other state has as many revered writers as Mississippi. What about New York?
True, there are more famous authors from New York. But these Mississippi authors are the most honored and the most revered. We’ll go toe-to-toe with New York on that. Faulkner, Wright, Tennessee Williams – are you kidding? And, John Grisham – did you know the combined sales of his books are greater than the Bible?
Which poster is your favorite and why?
The one we just talked about. It starts off self-deprecating then lowers the boom on people who are illiterate about Mississippi and its writers. You look at these authors and you say: “How could these writers come from such a backward and uneducated state?” That’s all we want – for people to scratch their heads and say: “Wait a minute.”
Which poster do you get the most guff about?
The heart and lung transplant one.
The one that says the first heart and lung transplant was done in Mississippi by Dr. James Hardy? But didn’t the patient die in a few days?
No, 90 minutes. But at least Hardy tried. We’ve been the subject of ridicule on this one. Some people say it’s “intellectually dishonest” because the transplant from the chimpanzee wasn’t successful. They talk about Christian Barnard in South Africa, who did it a few years later with a human heart and was more successful. But Barnard stood on Hardy’s shoulders.
Is this “spin”?
Listen, in PR, I spin every day. But I wouldn’t call these posters “spin.” We’re trying to get some facts about our industriousness and accomplishments to the forefront. Maybe we didn’t delve, but other people can do that. Everything in the posters is not undisputed history, but there’s a lot less spin here than in most PR campaigns.
How would you characterize the campaign?
It’s what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story” for the most- maligned state. It’s to get people across the country to take a different look at today’s Mississippi.
You’re not from Mississippi, are you?
No, Alabama. But, as people like to say about Mississippi, “I got here as soon as I could.”
Now, is that spin?
Yes, definitely.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.