CINCINNATI -- As Cincinnati police try to unravel the details of the shooting at an office building on Fountain Square on Thursday morning, city leaders are already bracing for what could be a public relations crisis.
Leaders have invested millions in the redevelopment of downtown Cincinnati and nearby Over-the-Rhine in the past decade, winning accolades from media nationwide about the city’s great restaurants, historic renovations and impressive arts scene.
But on Thursday, the nation saw a different image of the Queen City – of bloodied victims being carried away on stretchers and shell-shocked city leaders trying to explain to reporters how such a tragedy happened here.
A Fifth Third Bank employee said he saw a gunman dressed in business attire walk into the lobby and spray bullets at innocent people. The gunman killed three people. Two others were injured. After several Cincinnati police officers exchanged fire with the gunman, he was shot and killed, city leaders said.
- Everything we know about the shooting
- What we know about the gunman
- What we know about the victims
- Mayor: Officers at shooting ran into a gun fight
- Witness: 'He was 4 meters away from me, shooting'
- Timeline: How the shooting unfolded
- Could Downtown shooting launch a PR crisis?
- See our editorial cartoon
- View images from the scene
Almost immediately city leaders began emphasizing that downtown, as a whole, on any given day, is still safe. And what happened on Thursday is an isolated tragedy that strikes cities nationwide with no warning.
“It’s safe,” Police Chief Eliot Isaac said. “These are things we see happening across the country.”
Hours later, Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld tweeted that he would eat lunch on Fountain Square on Friday to promote healing.
Every city has its sacred spaces. Ours is Fountain Square - a place for joy & protest & coming together. The actions of one sick man doesn't change that. That's not what our city is. I will be eating lunch on Fountain Square tomorrow, mindful of the true character of Cincinnati.
— P.G. Sittenfeld (@PGSittenfeld) September 6, 2018
How city leaders respond to the tragedy will affect how the city is viewed regionally, and nationally, in the days that follow, marketing experts said.
“This is something that could happen in any city really,” said Ryan Rahinel, a marketing and branding professor at the University of Cincinnati.
But the fact that the shooting happened in the heart of Cincinnati’s central business district, could hurt its image, Rahinel said.
“The reason that it would affect Cincinnati in particular, is that one of the things we’re known for is being a corporate city,” Rahinel said. “The fact that this happened Downtown, in the middle of the corporate center, could be more troublesome for Cincinnati.”
In the face of tragedy, I think the city coming together around noon tomorrow in our civic living room to share food and each other's company would be a small, healing step. I also reached out to 3CDC which programs the space, suggesting we get a local choir offer music. https://t.co/5RQPzVdpUv
— P.G. Sittenfeld (@PGSittenfeld) September 6, 2018
Nick Vehr, CEO of Vehr Communications and a former Cincinnati city councilman, said city leaders must continue to emphasize that downtown is safe.
“The city leaders I’ve seen are already emphasizing that,” Vehr said. “The people who live and work downtown know that. The people who visit downtown frequently know that. It is not reflective in any way of life in downtown Cincinnati. It’s just a horrible tragedy and we have to come together and move forward from here.”
Susan Lomax, interim executive director of Source Cincinnati, which pitches positive stories about the city to a national audience, said the city’s reputation will withstand the tragedy.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families impacted by today’s incident and we are grateful to our first responders for their swift and brave action,” Lomax said in an emailed statement. “It is this strength of community that is at the heart of Cincinnati’s story and reputation. Reputations are built over time and we have proven that our community does not allow one incident, no matter how tragic, to define it.”
The unfortunate reality is that shootings with multiple victims occur frequently, in many cities across the country, and Cincinnati does not stand out among them, experts said.
“I think what’s sad is that we’ll now just be another city on the list that has experienced a tragedy like this,” Vehr said. “So as horrible as it is, and it is a list that no city ever wants to be on … if individuals are intent on hurting others, there’s almost nothing any city can do to stop it.”
Because major shootings have become more commonplace, and many result in much higher casualties, this one in Cincinnati may not stand out in the nation’s memory, experts said.
“There’s nothing to elevate it in memory as time goes by,” Rahniel said. “In three months to a year, when people think about all the (shootings) in America, they are all bad, but nothing stands out about the incident in Cincinnati compared to the other ones. They’re all bad, I don’t want to minimize them."
Other city leaders focused less on Thursday’s tragedy, and more on the societal problem of shootings nationwide.
“My view is that this is not about the image of a city or whether a certain neighborhood is safe,” said David Ginsburg, longtime CEO of Downtown Cincinnati, Inc. who retired in July.
“It is about violence, especially gun violence in our country and the imperative for all of us to come together to stop it," Ginsburg wrote in an emailed statement. "We have seen gun violence in every venue imaginable, from shopping centers, to nightclubs to churches. The ONLY thoughts today are for the victims and their families.”