THE BLOG

Sometimes You Have to Dig in and Play Rough

02/21/2014 05:39 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014

One doesn't typically equate Miami with artifacts and prehistoric ruins, but today the city has a bona fide archaeological controversy on its hands. And while my knowledge of antiquities is best measured by how many times I have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, I do know a good PR mess when I see one. This tale began earlier this month when archaeologists announced they had uncovered remnants of a Tequesta Indian Village on prime downtown Miami real estate. The site, called "highly significant" by one anthropologist, includes eight large circles comprised of uniformly carved holes in native limestone that are believed to be foundation holes for dwellings dating as far back as 2,000 years.

The land is at the mouth of the Miami River and literally in the shadow of skyscrapers, pricey condos and some of the area's finest restaurants. The problem is that the land is owned by a developer who plans to build a movie complex, restaurants and a 34-story hotel on the spot.

Those who know just a bit of Miami's history will tell you this find was not a surprise. The downtown area was home to some of Miami's first inhabitants and was also the site of a historical hotel. Again, it's prime dirt.

When the story broke, the developer, MDM Development Group, took a practically cordial stance regarding the announcement. They knew such an archaeological find was a possibility. From the Miami Herald:

The developer has offered to carve out the limestone holding one or two of the larger circles on the site and display those in a planned public plaza. In recent weeks, MDM officials have discussed doing more in meetings with city and county planners and preservation officials, but have made no promises or commitments.

"We will do our utmost,'' MDM director Ian Swanson said. "There is no easy answer to this at all.''

But the tale got interesting about a week ago when it appeared that the developer's "carve out" plan wasn't going to take hold. MDM, through its attorney, made a complete about-face regarding the archaeological findings. Attorney Eugene Stearns, a well-known civil litigator, publicly downplayed the significance of the site, calling the findings "imaginary," "fanciful" and "hokum" (my personal favorite).

MDM's new, aggressive public stance was widely reported. Again from the Miami Herald:

"You're being sold a bill of goods,'' Stearns said, complaining that news outlets have credulously reported the findings. "There is no new discovery here.''

... "I don't believe they will survive the most basic cross-examination," he said. "My wife sees faces in clouds. One of my partners said you could take these postholes and draw a Star of David and say they were Jewish."

Aside from the colorful language and gossipy appeal, why is this interesting? Because when you are fighting a battle with a public relations component, sometimes you have to dig in and play rough.

I didn't foresee the abrupt change by MDM. The company went from being supportive of the findings to, well, calling them "hokum." It bears noting that the archaeologists are actually paid by MDM.

When I discussed the situation with a developer friend of mine, he wasn't the least bit surprised by MDM's tactics.

"The city will walk all over you if you don't play hard ball," he said.

MDM is drawing its line in the sand (or perhaps limestone), and the developer will now work hard to secure concessions from the city, if they indeed can't build their project as designed.

This stance makes it tough on the PR people who were likely hoping for an amicable solution. Reversing field puts a ding in the developer's credibility and protracted fights can erode a brand. But when millions of dollars are at stake, sometimes you have to stop playing nice and do what is best for the business.

When you go back and look at the public statements by the developer, it is clear that the executives left room for a change in tactics.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. We will hear from more experts and likely get more varied opinions about the archaeological significance of the site. Unfortunately, the city lacks the resources to pay the developer market value for the property, and the developer had prior knowledge that this issue could arise.

There's nothing fanciful, imaginary or hokum about the upcoming battle -- likely to be hard fought in the legal system and the court of public opinion.