Fading from the news these days is coverage of New Orleans’ struggle to rebuild.  We heard lots of rhetoric following Hurricane Katrina about how the city would once again reclaim its spot as one of America’s great cities.  Yet it was conspicuously absent from President Bush’s State of the Union address in January.  It has been usurped in the news by fluff and bickering.

New Orleans cannot and should not be forgotten.

Gini and I spent the day in the city recently, doing some work for a client and we were shocked at the state of the city.  I only wish we had taken pictures.

Rusted gates line city streets.  Street signs, victims of high speed winds, are twisted around poles, or absent altogether.  The roads are rutted and difficult to navigate.  Homeowners sit on their porches, the X’s of rescue workers splayed on the façades of their homes a year and a half after the hurricane.  Trailers act as dorms or classrooms at the Universityof New Orleans which sits a stone’s throw from the tenuous levies of Lake Pontchartrain.

Shells of crumbling houses line the streets.  Boats lie half buried in front yards.  One storefront’s windows were not boarded up; the windows are broken and there were rusty tables and chairs stacked on top of each other to prevent people from entering.

For sale signs hang in windows of abandoned homes.  The main drag of Canal St. looks like pictures of Baghdad, with pocked buildings sitting empty amid a few remodeled businesses.  Scores of police patrol the city, underscoring its place as the murder capital of the United States.

It is devoid of landmarks or streetlights in outlying areas.  Empty neighborhoods create a ghost town feeling.  It is eerily empty.

That’s not to say there’s not progress.  Businesses are up and running on Canal St.  The trolley runs regularly (which is in stark contrast, some would argue, to our transportation system here in Chicago).  The Saints made the playoffs, providing hope to weary fans.  We even saw new homes, some built on stilts, some looking like million dollar residences.  Crews were hard at work building on the University of New Orleans campus.

But there is much to be done.

Let us never forget the scenes of frantic residents waving from atop their homes or bloated bodies floating in what was once a thriving metropolis.  Today New Orleans is a shell of a city.

I’ll admit, sometimes my posts don’t always focus on spin in PR.  I try not to blow too much hot air about topics like this. Some things, however, are more important than corporate talking points.  And I think it is the responsibility of PR people, as messengers, to keep in mind that we have the ability to shed light on social ills, such as the plight of New Orleans.  Let’s not be self-serving or too pushy with our clients’ messages; let’s reignite the dialogue about this broken city.  Let’s help an integral part of America rebuild.  Let’s push Anna Nicole out of the news and know that Perez Hilton is a blip on the radar of importance.  Let’s hold other messengers accountable for the things they say – and more importantly the things they don’t say.

How often have John Edwards or Barack Obama, who used the city as a political backdrop, spoken about New Orleans since their much-publicized visits there in recent months?  When was the last time President Bush committed to rebuilding the city?  When was the last time we heard about a corporate initiative to help the city?  We can help.  Our clients can go on mission trips, donate funds to Habitat for Humanity, buy schoolbooks, provide food and other things we take for granted.

Do you think New Orleans has been ignored by corporations?  And how do you think messaging about the city has been skewed, if at all?

I don’t claim to be a huge activist, and admittedly have ambitions to do good, but often fail in completing them.  But my time in New Orleans last week, just one day, showed me that I have it pretty good.  These people who remain in that city are struggling.

We can help.  And that’s a good message.  — Alex Parker