Civic boosters look at promoting a post-pandemic city

Early efforts will appeal to local pride — and a need to grieve.

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A woman jogs by the closed Art Institute of Chicago last week. Public and private agencies are working on plans to re-open the city and encourage commerce once the virus abates.


Someday, if we allow ourselves to dream, we’ll again have a city to enjoy. There will again be guilt-free strolls in the park, trips to the zoo, greeting friends at the neighborhood diner and hustling to make a Metra train. Who would have thought it’s possible to miss the Metra hustle?

We could use a dose of normalcy now, but its ETA is unknown. So the question becomes when normalcy arrives in some fashion, how changed will we and our surroundings be?

It’s the overriding subject on the minds of those tasked with helping the region’s economy get back on track. Among them are Michael Fassnacht, the advertising executive designated three weeks ago by Mayor Lori Lightfoot as the city’s chief marketing officer, and Jack Lavin, CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

They will be at the center of efforts that unite local business, government and nonprofits to re-engage people with Chicago, first the locals and then everybody beyond. How will they go about marketing a city currently with little to tout, except great takeout food and empty sidewalks if you want to gawk at the architecture? How do you grease commerce when its gears are locked?

Chicago Enterprise bug

Chicago Enterprise

Look for a lot of social media use. Fassnacht said it’s cheap and can be adapted to reach people who don’t use traditional media. Remember we have a mayor who has given us memes. She’s clearly comfortable being playful on Twitter and Facebook. Fassnacht sees Lightfoot as a force to deploy when it’s time to instill people with confidence.

“I think that getting back to normal will take longer than what is expected,” he said. “So how the mayor behaves is critical. People need to be sure when it’s safe to go out again.”

We also can expect an attempt to rally Chicagoans to support their neighbors and businesses. Lavin said he’d like to see his chamber members adopt a “Chicago pledge” to use local companies as suppliers. “This will be particularly important for minority- and women-owned businesses. How can we help them get back on their feet?” Lavin said.

Fassnacht used similar language in talking about a “Chicago pride” push that would include business-to-business activity but also consumer campaigns, such as promotions to get people back into clubs, theaters and hotels. He said many ideas are under discussion, with particular attention on using foundations’ donations to support underserved communities and African American youth.


Michael Fassnacht, chief marketing officer for the city



Jack Lavin, CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce

Sun-Times Media

There’s an element to the recovery campaign that may be a surprise: a need to grieve. Fassnacht highlighted that, and it’s reflected in the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force of volunteers Lightfoot announced last week.

It includes a committee to address emotional and mental health, and one devoted to a “change study” that examines what the virus will do to our long-term behavior. How will work settings change, and will employers be routinely taking employees’ temperatures before they clock in?

“Some industries will be changed and changed forever,” Lavin said, “and everybody will operate differently coming out of this.”

With houses of worship closed and many families unable to congregate, we have catching up to do in coping with sadness. People need time to process their losses, starting with those who mourn loved ones.

But trauma and anguish take many forms. Sorrow is also real for those who have lost financial security, deferred their dream of continuing education or lost their one shot at competing in the state playoffs.

Fassnacht said he’s thinking about a public acknowledgment of this grief and a push to recognize everyday heroics and good works.

He’s paid $1 a year for a gig that has him advising both the mayor’s office and World Business Chicago, the public-private agency that recruits companies to set up shop here. The former CEO at Foote, Cone & Belding already has been involved in promotions for the stay-at-home initiative, including the “We Are Not Playing” campaign that uses Chicago sports teams.

Fassnacht said coming out of the crisis, the city may enjoy some advantages in the competition for new business. “As a center of creativity and diversity, Chicago will have a massive competitive advantage,” he said.

Its population density is lower than other cities,’ and its connections for travel and logistics are fabulous, Fassnacht said. He said rather than putting business decisions on hold, the crisis will lead some companies to make long-planned moves involving headquarters or new facilities.

But those are matters for another day, maybe another year. For now, the civic promoters must concentrate on building common cause around reviving what we love about the city itself.

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