NEWS ANALYSIS: Tough stance on tourism as foot-and-mouth bites - With the impact of foot-and-mouth on the UK tourist sector apparent, PR has a vital role to play in attempting to turn the tide of bad publicity, reports Chris Scott

With government compensation offsetting the impact of the

foot-and-mouth crisis on Britain's farmers, attention has turned from

this already ailing trade to the effects on the more economically

significant tourist industry.



Already affected by the financial downturn in Asia and the US - both key

markets for attracting visitors to these shores - the industry now faces

the loss of up to pounds 2.5bn this year from overseas tourists alone,

jeopardising the future of countless small operators.



The economic problems have, however, proved a goldmine for PR agencies

solicited to assist the various bodies involved. GCI Group has been

taken on by the British Tourist Authority, while Ogilvy handles the

English Tourism Council account. Some of the worst affected regions have

taken on their own external help, with Marbles working alongside South

West Tourism, YFC handling the south of England, Bell Pottinger acting

for the York Tourism Bureau and Burson-Marsteller working in hard-hit

Cumbria.



Katherine Grice, press and PR manager at the London Tourist Board (LTB),

which has appointed LDA Communications to support its efforts, is ready

to all but write off overseas tourists until the disease subsides. She

claims there is no point undertaking a marketing campaign 'until

foot-and-mouth is under control'.



As a result, the LTB's principal campaign targets domestic tourists:

encouraging short breaks in the capital to make up the shortfall in

hotel bookings. However, the LTB's own figures estimate that although

around half of the visitors to London come from within the UK, they

spend only pounds 1bn per year as opposed to the pounds 7bn disbursed by

foreigners.



GCI director Rhodri Harries, whose brief is to salvage the UK's battered

image overseas, disagrees with the LTB's line. He insists it is not

GCI's strategy to write off anything. 'It would be irresponsible to do

so from a British perspective as so many jobs depend on tourism. At the

moment, our work is about neutralising inaccurate misrepresentations in

the foreign media. Our aim is to educate and rebut what is essentially

sensationalist and irresponsible media coverage overseas,' he says.



Yet with health concerns rife over dioxin emissions from the burning of

carcasses, and even talk of napalm as a solution to the carcass disposal

backlog, achieving positive coverage overseas is problematic -

particularly when news bulletins begin to resemble wartime dispatches.

'It's part of our job to be open and responsible with the information we

have,' admits Harries. 'It's not about fooling people, but putting the

problem into perspective.'



A major marketing campaign is to form part of the long-term strategy to

revive the industry. BTA chairman David Quarmby has said that after the

Gulf War it took four years to rebuild American confidence in travelling

to Western Europe, despite its distance from the conflict. He added:

'Our fear is that without adequate (marketing) activity it could take at

least as long to rebuild confidence after foot-and-mouth.'



It is the battle for media coverage in the US that underpins a great

deal of the PR work. North American tourists account for a fifth of all

foreign visitors to the UK, and figures for March - at the onset of the

outbreak - suggest a 30 per cent slump in trans-Atlantic trade.



Apocalyptic images of burning cattle make for a compelling news story.

But efforts to sway coverage are hampered by the US media's reluctance

to accept British reassurances. CNN, for example, has reacted to the

Open Britain campaign with reference to 'fumblings by British officials

and scientists in the past', harking back to former agriculture minister

John Gummer's steadfast denial that BSE in meat could infect humans.



The US government's tough stance has not helped lift the air of

disaster. Washington's agriculture ministry is advising tourists not to

visits farms, zoos, or any 'animal facilities' for five days prior to

returning home, whereupon they are subject to a stringent disinfection

programme.



A non-partisan government department advises that travellers' clothes

should be laundered immediately upon their return to the US, they should

shower and 'shampoo thoroughly', and contact with any livestock should

be strictly avoided for a further five days. Similar restrictions apply

elsewhere, as the rest of the world seeks to quarantine the ailment.



For those attempting to promote the 'business as usual' line, this

burden on travellers serves only to hamper their efforts. It is why a

great deal of planning is going into the long-term strategy to woo

visitors back to the UK once restrictions end.



One of the main themes of GCI and the BTA's strategy is to get coverage

of positive events over the coming year. 'We have to look for issues

that have resonance with the US media,' says Harries. CBS has so far

devoted airtime to the re-opening of Stonehenge, while the forthcoming

campaign will attempt to resell Britain through events such as the

Queen's jubilee next year and Manchester's hosting of the Commonwealth

Games.



That the country will eventually return to normality is beyond

question.



It remains to be seen whether the vacant hotel rooms can be restocked as

rapidly as the farmyards.



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