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Paradise to Punch Line; O.C. Image Takes a Hit : Fallout: Bankruptcy, flood and losing the Rams hurt perception. How quickly can the county bounce back?

February 13, 1995|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the most recent episode of "The Nanny," a popular NBC comedy, the smart-aleck butler's nemesis taunts him with the reminder that she manages his pension plan.

"I have three words for you," she says with evil glee. "Orange . . . County . . . bonds."

On cue, the butler's eyes widen with horror and the audience howls with laughter.

Such is the precipitous fall from grace for Orange County--once a promoter's paradise, now the punch line of prime-time jokes.

After two months of fiscal ruin, raging floods and fleeing Rams, the image of this affluent county is suddenly spattered with red ink and caked with mud.

"People are taking a harder look when they're considering moving to the Orange County area," said Richard Ganley, president of FAS-Hotline Inc., a national information service that each year counsels more than 5,000 families who are contemplating a move. "Based on recent happenings, based on our experiences and the people we're helping to move, they're taking a harder look with everything going on out there."

One high-profile job going unfilled--perhaps because of Orange County's sullied image--is the post of vice chancellor in charge of development at UC Irvine. Christopher Bryant, president of AST/BRYANT, the Los Angeles firm retained by the school to fill the post, said the job isn't attracting the number of candidates it should.

"The Orange County bankruptcy could not have come at a worse time," Bryant said. "When it happened, we had been talking to a lot of (candidates). . . . When we made follow-up contacts, it was, 'Well what about this?' What are we going to say?"

Of course, remedies for the county's ailing image can be glimpsed on the horizon. The rains have subsided. The Rams have not left yet. And a small cavalry of accountants, lawyers and county officials are working on a plan to save the day and distribute the pain of a $1.69-billion investment loss.

But some worry that repeatedly televised pictures of this bankrupt municipality--reeling under the wrath of Mother Nature and losing a coveted sports franchise--will persist in the national consciousness, even after the county's problems are solved or forgotten.

"Areas have prestige, and they have an image they portray to the outside world," said Mark Baldassare, chairman of the Department of Urban Planning at UC Irvine. "Right now, our image to the outside world is in jeopardy . . . and that has economic implications."

Executive recruiters, who woo people here from colder climes and more crime-plagued locales have been the first to see Orange County lose its Shangri-La cachet.

The bankruptcy, "is one more negative strike to overcome," said a weary Elliot Gordon, head of the Orange County office of Korn/Ferry International, one of the world's largest executive search firms.

Marketing experts warn that image can be difficult to gauge, and damage more difficult still. Many say the county's current troubles are minuscule and meaningless when viewed against decades of positive press extolling Orange County's climate, economy and way of life.

"It's an 80-year migration of people, capital, energy and confidence--from the upper right-hand corner of the country to the lower left-hand corner of the country," said Douglas W. Rae, a Yale School of Management professor and the former chief administrative officer for New Haven, Conn.

It will take more than a bankruptcy, Rae said, to disrupt such a steady trend.

"I think in the long-term, (the bankruptcy) is not a problem," said Tom Buckles, professor of marketing at Chapman University. "California has always had a major image problem. . . . What you'll find is maybe people who are pessimistic have a tendency not to come, and people optimistic and wanting to take advantage of an opportunity will. People lose interest in things real quickly."

But other experts caution that the county is playing with fire when it takes its good image for granted.

"Maybe this is only of interest to widows, orphans and people who follow public finance," said Don Haider, a professor at Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management. "But the only state to default during the Depression was Arkansas, and think of all the images we have of Arkansas."

Several marketing experts said the county would do well to study how private industry tackles public relations headaches: Promptly, and without waiting to see what the harm might be.

"If (the county) had been a product in the corporate world, there would've been excessive public relations to counter the negative image already," said Chiranjeev Kohli, associate professor of marketing at Cal State Fullerton.

Some business and government officials already are heeding that advice.

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