Tourism PR often plays to the better aspects of society, such as leisure, exploring, and socializing.
But in a world increasingly affected by global terrorism and climatic disasters, crisis messaging becomes as important a discipline in the tourism PR professional's experience.
The importance of 24-hour cable channels, global internet media, and new communications channels has created an insatiable news machine that requires constant messaging from whatever subject is in its gaze.
Aruba is the most recent subject of international media scrutiny since Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old Alabama woman, disappeared on the island on May 30. In the past month, Factiva shows 2,257 stories featuring Holloway's name. The fact that this happened in Aruba, a place that has long touted its safety record, caught many people by surprise. The story has many twists that has whet the media's appetite. Fueling the debate are questions such as whether this deserves the amount of airplay, and editorials in papers questioning whether racism abounds in coverage of missing persons.
Virginia Sheridan, president of tourism PR firm M. Silver Associates, says that since a situation like this is so uncommon, the island may have been caught off-guard.
"But I think they're doing a good job now in providing an open communicative environment," Sheridan says.
Stacey Weiss, VP and director of PR at travel PR firm BVK, applauds the tourism department for posting statements on its website. The first one, from Aruba's prime minister, explained the rescue effort on June 3. The second, appearing on June 21, detailed the effort.
Jasmine Maduro, PR assistant for the Aruba Tourism Authority, says the police and justice department are handling most of the Holloways' communications.
"But we're doing what we can to help the international press and [Holloway's] family," Maduro adds.
At the same time, Maduro clarifies, the tourism authority is still actively engaged in its normal role. "We're still [currently] working with tourism magazines promoting Aruba," Maduro says, referring further questions to her supervisors, who were traveling on business as of press time. Aruba's PR firm, Quinn & Company, did not respond to requests for comment.
As the search mounts and media attention focuses on the country so dependent on tourism (CNN, one of the many outlets closely following the search, reports that tourism accounts for 70% of the island's gross domestic product), Aruba's response has become a confluence of altruistic interest in the safety of someone lost on its soil, and economic self-interest. As Maduro says, the island continues its promotion work.
PR professionals say there has to be a balance between promotions and communications around the rescue. They opine that some work could continue in the promotion of the island, but it must remain behind the scenes.
"Right now, all their messaging should be on this issue; they don't want Aruba to talk to about its tourism [offerings]," Weiss says. "But they can be working with long-leads right there to get those messages to appear in three months."
She says that tourism departments and their firms need to be ready to triple their outreach efforts as soon as the situation is resolved.
"It's a period to be quiet," Sheridan says. "For instance, you wouldn't want an ad to run on television."
The problem with working with the travel media during a crisis is that so much what appears in travel publications have been pitched and written up three to six months prior to publication.
Sheridan concedes that the long-lead-time nature of the tourism industry would invariably involve features scheduled to come out during a controversy. But she says that both the media and island would see the logic in pulling those stories.
"It's not like you're trying to squelch bad news," Sheridan says. "You would be working with the media in a positive, cooperative way."
Sheridan represents a number of luxury resorts, though none in Aruba. She says if a similar situation were to befall an island where a client was located, she would leave the major proactive media to the island, but communicate quickly and continuously with customers and travel agents.
"They have to make certain they have a good dialogue going and are reassuring their customers," Sheridan says, offering as examples how safe the area where the hotel is located or how unusual this type of crime is.
The resort would probably want to pull advertisements and be understanding if customers insisted on staying home.
"Whether or not resorts refund the vacation would be determined on an individual basis," Sheridan says. "But if a lot of people are saying they want to stay away, it makes sense to understand that and honor that."
Sheridan says that during the protracted situation, the real priority is to make sure you avoid doing anything that hurts the people involved.
"But what you do afterwards is really as important as what you do during," she continues. "After the recovery program, you get back to normal. You monitor public opinions."
But during the crisis, PR professionals are split on how to handle messaging.
"Aruba's advantage is that it is a safe country; so you must make certain the media knows that this is not a common occurrence," Sheridan says. "That the island that is very safe and murders rarely happen is part of the media information you would disseminate early on."
But Weiss says that Aruba should cease in doing just that because the public doesn't want to hear about what normally happens there. She says she's noticed a general negative opinion in blogs and chatrooms when Aruba talks about its safe track record.
Weiss says that the general consensus online is, "We're sick of hearing that they don't have crime; this is an issue you have to deal with."
Weiss' agency is monitoring opinion about Aruba for its client, the Dominican Republic, which could be adversely affected by developments in the investigation.
"Something like this puts everyone in the Caribbean in the microscope, so we're watching [the situation] real closely."
But Weiss adds that Aruba has a great opportunity to build credibility and relationships with the media and the US.
"Right now the US media is wide open to what they have to say," Weiss says. "So you need to get the right spokesperson on the Today show. They will have to face some scrutiny, but facing it head on and being as open as possible can only help you."
Even those in tourism outside of the Caribbean are monitoring the situation closely. Sheridan says that in a world of global terrorism and natural calamities, the tourism industry has become more aware and better prepared in crisis communications.
"So many things that can happen in the tourism world, so for every kind of the situation, you must know what your readiness and management plan is," Sheridan says. "Tourism PR is [typically] to spread as much good news as possible. When something really bad happens, it's not [always] part of the plan. But crisis [communications] is now part of tourism, and, when it hits, it takes over 100%."