Engaging Central Falls

"Nestled between the city of Pawtucket and the towns of Cumberland and Lincoln, Central Falls' history dates back to 1731." So says the website of a classic American city of 19,000 residents, within an area of 1.29 square miles. It was incorporated as a city in 1895.

Central Falls, R.I. has a total municipal budget of $16.8 million, and a current fiscal year budget deficit of $5.6 million -- a deficit projected for each of the next five years as well. And it has $80 million in unfunded pension and retiree health benefits.

Robert G. Flanders Jr., a prominent attorney, is now running the city of Central Falls -- because, as the state-appointed receiver, he has declared bankruptcy under Chapter 9, Title 11 of the United States code. Along with this he has voided union contracts and cut retirees' pensions, some by 50%. Everyone is in court now, sorting things out.

Central Falls is a metaphor for where we are as a country, maybe the whole world. But that's not why I'm referencing it today.



After reading stories in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other prominent publications, on and offline, I found myself caught up in the Central Falls experience when I saw one of its retired fireman telling his story on television -- his personal story.

I had read the facts, and I'll read more, as I think what ultimately happens in Central Falls is important. But I was struck, again, by the power of television to uniquely humanize the story for me after I'd read the facts about it in various other media. And I recalled that this is what we meant several years ago when five of us began what would be called the MI4 group to explore and define engagement.

According to the definition ultimately published, engagement means turning on a prospect to a brand idea, enhanced by the surrounding context.

We had many, many conversations about the phrase "turning on a prospect." And we came to the notion that a turned-on customer results from stimulating something called "co-creation," a concept originated in the work of Professor Gerald Zaltman, which results in a more personal, deeper meaning.

We focused our efforts on the advertising applications of engagement, but knew that the principles related to all forms of content (advertising being commercial content) -- and that it ultimately reverted back to the (direct marketing) principle of involvement.

Involvement, like engagement, and maybe like pornography according to Justice Potter Stewart, is something harder to define than to recognize ("I know it when I see it," said the Justice).

We are living in more than interesting times, from Central Falls to Washington D.C. to Europe and beyond. These are important, historic times. And in these times I find myself more and more seeking the sight, sound and (e)motion of television to understand things in a deeply personal way. Who would have thought that television, which originally gave us Lucy and Ricky, would become, in a digital age, the medium of our times.

Let me know if you agree.

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