Is the new Wisconsin brand destined to become "We're open for business" or "We're at war with ourselves"?
That question is on the minds of many in the business community, nationally as well as in Wisconsin, as the mass protests surrounding Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair legislation continue to capture national and even international attention.
From major newspapers and broadcast networks to countless Facebook pages; from Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Greta Van Susteren on the talk-show right to Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz on the talker left; the political drama playing out in Madison has focused public attention on what's at stake in Wisconsin.
In part, it's a national showcase on democracy in action in a state that prides itself on being politically engaged. Even Walker, who needs to plug a giant hole in Wisconsin's budget and has confronted organized labor to help get there, said "the thousands of people who are storming the Capitol have every right to be heard…"
It's also a rare, even unprecedented opportunity for people outside Wisconsin to learn about our civic fabric and our ability to solve problems. In short, it's a chance for outsiders to see what makes us tick, other than the Green Bay Packers and plastic cheeseheads.
So far, the message being sent to the world isn't all that encouraging. In the black-and-white world of talk-show journalism, Wisconsin is either an overtaxed haven for socialistic union goons or a state led by selfish "dictators" bent on crushing working people. (If you don't believe the latter, take a look at the protest signs that compare first-term governor Walker to Mubarak, Mussolini or Hitler – after only 45 days in office!)
Consider what else people outside Wisconsin, especially business and investment professionals the state would like to attract, are seeing and hearing:
- They're being told Wisconsin is a high-tax state, when in fact it has begun to slip out of the top 10 states by most measures and recently enacted new regulatory and business tax incentives.
- They're learning that many Wisconsin public schools are closed because teachers are protesting, an image that undermines a key state brand – reliable, quality education.
- They're seeing Democratic members of the state Senate flee to Illinois to avoid a quorum, a move that could signal Wisconsin's political system is dysfunctional when, in fact, the Legislature often stands out as a model of decorum and professionalism among the 50 states.
- Whether they are owned by companies, movie stars or states, valuable brands can be harmed by self-inflicted wounds – or reinforced when a serious challenge is reasonably and openly confronted.
That's the branding task confronting Wisconsin now that people from outside the state are watching and, in many cases, defining our own brand for us. Wisconsin cannot afford to be seen as a circus in a snow globe, which would be the end result if the real and pressing issues surrounding Walker's budget repair bill aren't resolved in good time.
If those issues are resolved, however, Wisconsin will be seen as a state that peacefully came to grips with a redefined relationship between taxpayers, government and public employees.
That's a brand that would go far beyond cheeseheads and the Packers. It would build upon the state's historic reputation for public innovation and send a message, loud and clear, that Wisconsin is not only "open for business" but open to the many types of people and groups who help underpin a vibrant business climate.
Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.