Crescent City crisis

Any tourism account has the potential to turn into an exercise in crisis comms.

Any tourism account has the potential to turn into an exercise in crisis comms.

For the past several weeks, the world has been riveted by round-the-clock coverage of the streets of New Orleans. Scenes of widespread flooding and devastation present a daunting challenge to any communications professional connected with the city.

But to a PR pro who has been working on New Orleans' tourism efforts, the sudden switch to crisis communication mode is especially daunting.

The story of how John Deveney, senior counsel of Deveney Communications, and his associates and colleagues switched from a consumer tourism focus to one of managing the post-Hurricane Katrina crisis is being written daily. It begins in the days immediately before the hurricane came ashore, when they knew they had to put a plan in action for how the firm could continue to function. "On [the day before the storm hit], we had six offices scattered across the country," says Deveney.

Everyone was equipped with a laptop computer, and Deveney took personal possession of the two servers. This ensured that the firm could provide infrastructure for the tourism bureau even as the city's infrastructure collapsed. As a result, Deveney was able to convert the main visitor's bureau website into a central source for news and information. This was vital when nearly 1,500 embedded journalists descended on the Crescent City. With that number of reporters around in a 24-hour news cycle, managing rumors and disseminating factual information forced Deveney to establish a media triage. Several of his staffers returned to the city to provide on-the-ground support.

"We make decisions based on a defined list of priorities," says Deveney. "Is it major media, local, or independent? Is the deadline in the next four hours? Is it message critical or an information request?" ("Message critical" is defined as a question that affects the reputation of the city and its brand.)

In preparing his approach, Deveney studied the lessons learned from the school shooting in Columbine, CO. "We found a comment that one failing they felt was they overlooked the local media because they were so busy responding to CNN and global media," he says.

A major role is planning for recovery. "All of the tourism leaders have really come together in a finely integrated manner," says Deveney. "Absolutely, there will be Mardi Gras."

Big business

The travel industry is one of the most competitive business sectors. The success or failure of tourism marketing is immediately felt by the local economy, affecting jobs and the customer base that supports many retail and service companies. "By many measurements
by the World Tourism Organization, tourism is the single largest industry in the world, so it has huge economic implications," says Cynthia Fontayne, CEO of The Fontayne Group and a 35-year veteran of the travel industry.

With the stakes this high, effective crisis management can make the difference between rebound and recession for a city, state, or country. Some crises are relatively predictable: Coastal communities know they must plan for hurricanes. Airlines must plan for a crash. Theme parks must plan for ride accidents. But many cannot be planned for.

Californians experience annual mud slides, wildfires, and earthquakes, but the rolling electrical blackouts in 2000 and 2001 caused a surprising disturbance in tourism.

"People were becoming concerned that they'd be caught in an elevator or stuck at the top of a roller-coaster at Magic Mountain," says Fontayne. Meeting planners were calling convention bureaus asking how exhibitions could go on if electricity wasn't dependable.

Fontayne worked with California tourism officials to create a multilevel media campaign called "Enliten" that included a special section on the tourism website for travel industry press and journalists. "Though the blackouts were sporadic and never lasted as long as five minutes, the perception was that the state was in darkness," says Fontayne. "We didn't take the Pollyanna approach and say, 'The lights are on. Everything is fine,' because that would fly in the face of what was being shown on TV."

The effort centered on pushing credible information from reputable sources out into the marketplace. The team brought representatives from hotel chains, attractions, and visitors bureaus into the communications loop to centralize information on what precautions were being taken with regard to energy management throughout the state. Press kits were nuanced across several media targets. Energy writers, for example, were given factoids, such as that Californians use less energy per capita than 48 other states.

Keeping tourism alive

An even graver threat to a city's tourism efforts came in the shape of the 9/11 terror attacks.
But Christyne Nicholas, president and CEO of NYC & Co., the city's official tourism bureau, says the city immediately took a business-as-usual tack.

"The first step was to follow Mayor Giuliani's lead that the city was still open for business, including the re-opening of Broadway two days after the attack," says Nicholas.

NYC & Co. had to address a full matrix of audiences, but one of the most impactful things it did was to fight to keep all of the large-scale events around the city on schedule, starting with the October Columbus Day parade.

The team struck a deal with Delta Air Lines, which donated 10,000 inbound tickets for the bureau to offer website visitors on a first-come-first-serve basis. They went fast, and the success of the Columbus Day parade was the symbol needed to ensure strong attendance at succeeding events like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, the New York City Marathon, and the Times Square New Year's Eve spectacular.

Trouble in paradise

The bucolic beaches of South Walton on the Florida Panhandle - a prime location for second-home dwellers and wedding planners - could not be more different than the hustle and bustle of the New York and California markets. In recent years, however, this sleepy beach community has suffered stormy headlines and magazine covers on killer riptides and sharks. Kris Titus, executive director of the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) says that, like California's blackouts, "We had to effectively give a message that is truthful and yet still promote our beach destination."

In each case, Titus quickly turned to Howard Lalli, EVP at Edelman, for support. "It was important to frame the issue as beach safety since that's one of the things they aim to deliver to their visitors," says Lalli. The agency quickly found oceanic and marine life experts, such as George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, to provide frontline media responses. Burgess was interviewed repeatedly about shark habitat, shark behavior, and how rare similar incidents of attacks are, and he provided tips for swimmers and beachgoers.

Edelman also dispatched a crew to videotape tourists providing their thoughts and feelings about the incidents and whether it affected their vacation. The sound bites were posted on the TDC's website and were made available for the media to download. "Research shows how credible man-on- the-street interviews are among all sources," says Lalli.

Some best practices have emerged out of these experiences. While instincts might make one shy away from directly addressing the possibility of disaster at a popular destination, those who have taken leadership on such issues have earned PR dividends.

Rene Mack, president of Weber Shandwick's travel and lifestyle practice, says that before the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism developed the Hurricane Commission, it was considered anathema among its island peers to even mention hurricanes. Yet, by inviting major media to attend a meeting of world experts on storm preparedness, infrastructure management, evacuation, and protocol, Mack says, the Bahamas gained unassailable credibility on the topic and greatly improved general reporting of storms in the region.

Another best practice is to have open, honest dialogue at the highest levels of the operation. This makes a difference between a unified message delivered with discipline as experienced by New York City after the terrorist attack and the panicked one that played out during the early days of the New Orleans disaster.

A veteran's viewpoint

Cynthia Fontayne, CEO/creative director of The Fontayne Group, began her PR career in the public information office of Swiss Air in 1969, which then had two staffers and a secretary. Seven months later, a PLO mail bomb exploded one of their aircraft midflight. Fontayne has since become an industry expert on the intersection between travel-related PR and crisis communications.

On PR changes over the past 35 years
"In the early days, PR was more about disseminating operational and financial information about a company. Very little information was generated at the local level. Now I need to be using communications proactively as a marketing tool and not sit around waiting for some incident that requires a response."

On the impact of PR technology
"Technology facilitates the communications that our instincts told us were necessary but previous technological limitations prevented. The downside of technology and the 24-hour news cycle is that news is no longer coming from one source. Reporters don't gather their information from one official spokesperson anymore. There are so many ways a story can be gathered [that] we now have a need for PR representatives to chase down inaccuracies, and we spend more time correcting information."

On what has remained constant
"One thing that has never changed is that accuracy is the responsibility of the public relations professional. You have to be the honest broker between the client and the public. In a crisis, it's critical to authorize only a few people to speak and that only facts are transmitted. Reporters' questions often demand conjecture, but you cannot indulge yourself on that because things can really spiral out of control."

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