Source Cincinnati tells the story of our region

By Betsy Ross, Contributing Writer
Photos and video by Madison Schmidt

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  Destinee Thomas, manager of communications and content, Julie Calvert, executive director, and Susan Lomax, head of communications and content for Source Cincinnati.

Destinee Thomas, manager of communications and content, Julie Calvert, executive director, and Susan Lomax, head of communications and content for Source Cincinnati.

Julie Calvert has made a career out of telling great stories. Now, she’s making sure the rest of the country, and the world, are telling great stories about Greater Cincinnati.

As the executive director of Source Cincinnati USA, Julie makes it her mission to let everyone know about the positives we often take for granted in our area: Explosive downtown growth, revitalization of the Over-the-Rhine area, diverse employment opportunities, among others.

Source Cincinnati, formed in 2014, is a regional effort to proactively pitch positive Cincinnati-centric stories to a national audience with the goal of promoting the area as an attractive destination to work, live and play. 

(Full disclosure: Julie was a bright-eyed intern from Miami University in our newsroom at WLWT-TV when I worked there, so her love of storytelling has bona fide journalistic roots).

Her journalism career took her first to Boston, then to Cleveland, and back home to the then-Business Record (later the Business Courier). In 1994, that journalism background helped her land a newly-formed position with the Dan Pinger public relations agency.

“When I worked at the Business Record, Pinger was the biggest firm in town and they were constantly pitching us stories for their clients,” said Calvert. “Sometimes the stories they were pitching, there was no way in the world we would ever want them and there was frustration on the part of clients, who thought, I pay you money, you place my story. They didn’t realize that’s not the way it works.”

“Dan Pinger was so far ahead of his time because he looked around and realized if he wanted to keep clients, he needed them to understand what makes good stories. So he brought on two former media professionals who could help clients understand what stories the media wanted. I was one of the two that he brought on. We did media training and we helped clients understand the message. It wasn’t just we’ll place the story, it was let’s go on this journey together.”

In 2001, Calvert moved to the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau as vice president, marketing and communications, and immediately faced some unique challenges.

“I started there three months after the riots (over the Timothy Thomas shooting) and three weeks before 9/11.”

Combine the aftermath of the riots with the shock of the 9/11 attacks and eventually a call for a national boycott of Cincinnati over the Thomas shooting, and promoting Cincinnati became a Sisyphus-like exercise in futility.

“Bill Cosby canceled (an appearance) which kind of catapulted the boycott forward. From there it was a lot of heavy lifting because the CVB became the unintended target to keep convention and tourism money out of the city. As a result, it was on the front page of every national newspaper.”

Because of that, one of the CVB’s first tasks was to look at ways to change the national narrative about the city.

“The first three years of my time at the CVB we kept a log of all the media who had done stories or story queries during that time. In 2003 and 2004, there were a series of openings, including Great American Ball Park, Paul Brown Stadium, Contemporary Art Center, the new wing at the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Reds Hall of Fame. Now we had a great story to tell. So we started going back to every one of those reporters and said hey, check us out now. Our stories went from about 78 percent negative in a year to only about 12 percent negative, because we started to tell our own story in a different way.”

You could say the seeds for Source Cincinnati were planted during those tough times, but the tipping point may have been a meeting in Mayor Charlie Luken’s office in 2001 with representatives from the Cincinnati Chamber and Downtown Cincinnati Incorporated joining Julie to find a way to improve the city’s image.

“We were in the mayor’s office with sirens going, and there was just tension everywhere and Charlie was clearly frustrated with everything going on and had every right to be so. He looked at us, and said, ‘Whose job is it to manage the image of this city?’ And we looked at each other, and we thought, nobody. The CVB was doing travel and tourism, the Chamber was doing business and events and DCI was focused on downtown, clean and safe, so there was a gap.

“When you recognize there’s a gap, you start to do the little things to fill it, and eventually you build momentum. We had the Midwest Travel Writers conference, then the National Baptist Convention signed, the NAACP, World Choir Games, MLB All-Star Game. In the middle of this, you have Over-the-Rhine rebuilding itself, the Banks was coming along, Fountain Square was revitalized and reopened. Great stories were happening. But there wasn’t one organization that could aggregate that, and tell that together.”

From that, the idea of Source Cincinnati came along. And now, besides pitching great stories, Source Cincinnati last month launched a new regional positioning initiative.

“The new position starts with the idea of connection. It’s not so much that you’re going to see campaigns from organizations saying ‘Cincinnati: A Connection’ but it’s how you bring those connections to life. What does that mean? If you’re a visitor, and research shows us visitors are looking for authentic experiences you can’t find anywhere else, then that’s our connection with you. So we offer great hotels and great restaurants and great arts and culture, and a great sense of family.”

“It’s like what Kristen Schlotman is doing at Film Cincinnati. It’s not like she throws out an RFP and movies come and that’s that. No, she walks them through the project from beginning to end, solves problems and makes people feel like, we really care about you and we want you to be successful. Now, that’s created a connection.”

Those connections, Calvert says, are what have made this region successful for decades.

“People are very industrious and are committed, and we’ve got this grit about us. If problems happen, things go wrong, we don’t get frustrated, we think how do we come together and collaborate and solve those problems together. We work with each other, we celebrate with each other, and our business community is thriving because it works together.”

“A couple of weeks ago someone said to me, ‘The civic boardrooms have become the new golf.’ It’s where business gets done now. It’s the civic community working with the corporate community, to work together, to take this region forward.”

For Julie Calvert, her personal connection to this region helps her tell the story.

“I love this city. There was so much benefit for me moving away for a couple of years to really discover how special this area is. I was born here, raised here, my family is here and my children are here. I love the people here and that sense of determined spirit, to constantly change and make things better.”

“I couldn’t do this and move to another city and do this job. It’s because it is this city, at this time, and it deserves the chance to tell its story. The people here deserve it. I am honored to take on that role and be able to do it.”