A tale of new cities

Whether a calamity was truly historic or exacerbated by the media, PR execs have a vital role in defining their regions. PRWeek looks at how four cities have reshaped their reputations.

Whether a calamity was truly historic or exacerbated by the media, PR execs have a vital role in defining their regions. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Emily Scardino looks at how four cities have reshaped their reputations.

New York City is one of the most diverse tourist destinations in America, both modern and filled with iconic historic landmarks such as the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. Located not too far from Lady Liberty in downtown Manhattan is Ground Zero, which has become an important stop for many on their visit to New York. Thanks to outreach and public awareness efforts in the 10 years since 9/11, the Big Apple has rallied in a way that is proving a case study and inspiration for other cities that have faced disasters.

“New York City's tourism has seen a remarkable turnaround since 9/11,” says Kimberly Spell, CCO of NYC & Company, the city's marketing and tourism organization. “In the last four years, it has been a critical revenue generator and job creator throughout the economic downturn. In fact, in 2010 the city welcomed a record 48.8 million visitors generating $31.5 billion in visitor spending and supporting more than 310,000 jobs.”

She adds that NYC & Company projects 2011 as another record year and fully expects to meet Mayor Michael Bloomberg's goal of 50 million visitors by 2012.

“There has been more than $30 billion in post-9/11 construction in lower Manhattan,” says Elizabeth Berger, president of Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit based in the financial district. “That includes tripling the number of hotels there with 80% more rooms overall, making it into a business and a leisure destination, as well as an increase in the number of people living and working there.”

Comms facilitates continued growth
Berger attributes continued growth to campaigns such as the current Get More NYC: Lower Manhattan, which works with international tour operators, airlines, and hotels and across media channels including print, broadcast, and digital. “It is a very large, sophisticated effort about tourism promotion centered around the opening of the memorial, which is on national and international tourists' minds,” she adds.

At the start of the summer, NYC & Company, along with Mayor Bloomberg and other elected officials and community groups, launched the campaign leading into the 10-year anniversary at a press conference on Stone Street in Lower Manhattan. 

“It is a campaign designed to showcase the recovery and revitalization of Lower Manhattan, encourage visitors to stay in Lower Manhattan's hotels, eat in its restaurants, shop in its stores, and get a glimpse of all the neighborhood has to offer,” explains Berger. “Get More NYC: Lower Manhattan includes a variety of travel itineraries, hotel incentives, and special offers at Lower Manhattan shops, restaurants, attractions, and cultural institutions.”

The campaign features outdoor media ads promoting Lower Manhattan throughout the city's five boroughs, a taxicab monitor video, a new global social media initiative (facebook.com/nycgo and @nycgo), and geo-targeted content on nycgo.com's mobile site (m.nycgo.com) to highlight attractions and events in Lower Manhattan and an initiative targeting meeting planners.

Even more recent events are being positioned as a potential boost to Lower Manhattan. Visit www.nycgo.com and, in addition to the continued draws Manhattan has to offer from Restaurant Week to discounted theater tickets, there is a banner highlighting the legalization of gay marriage. City Hall, after all, is in Lower Manhattan.

Those in PR universally thank Mayor Bloomberg for his business-oriented approach to encouraging tourism as a fundamental revenue generator for the entire city that could help fuel the rebuilding process.

Sending a positive PR message about downtown New York is a group effort. Camelot Communications hosted an event, Fall in Love with the New Downtown, that brought local business owners face to face with Financial District residents. Proceeds from the event stayed in the neighborhood, benefiting the Hive at 55, a turnkey office space for small startup businesses located downtown.

Lower Manhattan in particular has experienced remarkable growth in the number of visitors and hospitality-related services since 2001. Approximately 9 million people visited the area in 2010 – up 26% from 2008 – and its population has more than doubled to 56,000 over the last decade. In addition, nearly 20 hotels with an estimated 5,000 hotel rooms are located in the downtown area, while three new hotels with a total of 769 rooms will debut later this year, according to NYC & Company.

Residency has been driven by opening luxury rentals at affordable rents throughout Lower Manhattan. Locals were made aware through daily news coverage, outreach by the chamber of commerce, and local real estate and development agencies advertising to let potential buyers know there were great deals to be had on buildings downtown and that they were helping support the growth of the city by moving there. There are more public and private schools opening in Lower Manhattan than any other area of the borough right now, adds Berger.

Care for Ground Zero
While Ground Zero has become an important, historically significant place to visit, it is not a traditional tourist destination – certainly not in terms of merchandise. PR and marketing campaigns have been careful to respect the dead and survivors, while also reaching out to visitors.

“The 10th anniversary will allow us to honor our past while looking ahead to the future; with the memorial opening, in particular, signifying the culmination of Lower Manhattan and the city's revival as a whole,” says Spell of NYC & Company. “It will be a time to pay respects to those lost on 9/11 and celebrate the impact their lives and spirit had on New York City, while also sharing the city's renewed optimism and resiliency with those who will be coming to experience this important moment in time.”

Overall, the efforts are working, but New York in itself will always be a draw.

“Getting the word out has been important, but New York City is an incredibly compelling destination,” says Berger. “After 9/11, people have wanted to come and bear witness.”

A new image for New Orleans
The timing in starting to once again promote New Orleans as a tourist destination was critical in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

A city known for letting the good times roll came to a standstill after the hurricane hit in 2005. But even though there was tremendous devastation, as well as crime and political corruption that tainted the town's image, the tourist destination of Bourbon Street was left intact. The challenge was in timing the message for tourists to come back, as well as improving the city's image.

A new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, has helped in this significantly, according to local PR sources, with one saying his election has “really given a lot of credibility to the leadership side of NOLA.”

The immediate response could not initially include a call to action for tourists to return.

“The first thing, in the wake of Katrina, was to maintain our credibility,” says Kelly Schulz, VP, communications and PR, New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We knew the situation was so catastrophic, the last thing we wanted to do as destination marketers was to say, ‘Everything's great, so come visit,' because everything wasn't great.”

Waiting for the proper moment
About a year and a half after Katrina is when “we really kicked off a marketing and communications campaign, after we received an $8.5 million grant,” Schulz adds. Her nonprofit usually has a $4 million annual budget that is “not adequate for a destination of our size, but definitely not to rebrand after a disaster of the scale of Katrina.”

Rebranding is a word used by many involved in New Orleans PR – with roots deeper than Katrina.

“Without question, our number-one economic development challenge over the past three years is image; people have always historically had a diminished view of the positives of Louisiana and New Orleans and an exaggerated view of the negatives: both were exacerbated by Katrina and later by the oil spill,” says Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development agency.

The simplest way would have been to do a $100 million campaign telling the story of New Orleans and that it was even better than before Katrina.

“The challenge is we don't have that $100 million,” adds Hecht. “We are left with more of a grassroots approach, so our number-one weapon has to be PR to get into the international press and get the word out.” Using these fundamental efforts, his organization alone has had more than 150 placements in local, national, and international press outlets in 2010, and so far in 2011 “we have already surpassed that. It's a fundamental driver of our success.”

In addition, a national survey conducted by Greater New Orleans Inc. offered encouraging news. Attitudes about the city have improved since the hurricane and oil spill. Moreover, up to 40% of individuals in major markets would consider moving to the city for a job opportunity, while New Orleans' reputation for corruption and crime had improved.

A gift from the Saints
One PR gift from heaven, all local PR pros agree, was when the Saints came marching in.

“One major event for us was the Saints winning the 2010 Super Bowl,” says Hecht. “No other event has given us such valuable publicity.”

Another key message for visitors was that it was OK, even encouraged, for them to have fun in all the traditional ways New Orleans is known for. Rather than have the sinking feeling they are celebrating during Mardi Gras at someone else's expense, the city got the message out that visitors were helping Katrina survivors and New Orleans as a whole by coming, drinking, eating, and having a good time.

As a result of these outreach efforts, New Orleans has a lot to celebrate. In 2010, tourism levels returned to pre-Katrina levels, with 8.3 million visitors, up from 7.5 million in 2009, spending $5.3 billion – the highest spending in the city's history, up from $4.2 billion in 2009.

Memphis battles misinformation
Sensational flood imagery on the news unfairly impacted Memphis, say local communications and PR execs. Though flooding impacted some towns nearby, local PR pros believe their city was misrepresented in the media. Less than 20% of Memphis and local Shelby County, TN, was affected, and of that 20%, a minimal area – less than 1% – was residential, notes Amy Daniels, communications director at the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

“That was our biggest challenge; nothing that related to tourism was really affected,” agrees Regena Bearden, VP of marketing for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The media exaggerated things; yes the water was high in areas, but not in those affecting tourist locales or the airport. We kept getting calls from visitors, meeting planners, and tour operators to check. We don't know how many of those who didn't call to check just didn't come.”

Due to the hyperbolic coverage, there was more than one call to action by locals concerned about their businesses to “get Diane Sawyer out of the Mississippi.”

Telling the real story
To quickly get the facts out, Bearden kept constant communication with local industry, with a set series of talking points. She also worked closely with all agencies involved with the river, including emergency management, river development, and the mayor's office, “so they could help reinforce the message in the press, which worked great,” she notes. “The importance of communicating in PR every single day, sometimes two or three times a day, going back to the 101 of PR and talking points was incredibly effective. You would not believe how many people were just so grateful that we gave them talking points with good information.”

It also helped that Memphis had a solid emergency communications plan in place. “We had done our homework after what happened with Katrina and other Gulf destinations,” adds Bearden. “We did as much as we could to write a communications plan for crisis, did some seminars and workshops on what to do, walked through it, and it really paid off for us; we just jumped into action.”

Keeping an eye on national coverage
During the flooding earlier this year, there were emergency management group briefings twice daily for the media and other agencies involved. Of course, this needed a sensitive PR touch, making sure that “the 1% of the population affected by it was getting help, but that emergency groups were not so focused on that piece of it that they forgot the national media coverage affecting tourism and businesses. Bringing that to the forefront was important because they then helped us get the word out.” PR was handled in house, though local PR firms including Faith Communications out of Dallas, which handles crisis communications for Memphis, helped craft and spread the message as well.

Graceland, Memphis' most iconic tourist spot, was not directly affected, but calls still came. Bearden and Daniels recounted the impact of a quote by Bob Nationals Jr, director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, which added levity to the situation: “Graceland is safe, and we would charge into hell with a water pistol to keep it that way, and I'd be willing to lead the charge.” The quote reached media far and wide, including Billboard and UK-based Telegraph. It was also posted on Facebook and retweeted on Twitter for weeks.

Taos clears the air for tourists
Where there's smoke there's not always fire. Not in Taos, New Mexico, at least, which was impacted by smoke, but not directly impacted by the wildfires in much of the Southwest US. Despite that, news reports misrepresented the scope and location of the wildfires and the town took the offensive to keep the reports from impacting tourism.

“Anytime there are fires in the Southwest, we are very proactive in dealing with them just because not everybody knows where things are in the Southwest,” says Cathy Connelly, PR director for the Town of Taos.

She notes that part of being proactive was immediately getting the word out in the media through traditional press releases, as well as on Facebook and the Taos tourism site, which gave real-time information for lodgings and tour operators to re-post. The Taos site also featured live webcams to be “very honest with people. We certainly had some smoke fallout that was intermittent, but we provided a way for visitors to check for themselves to see what was going on,” Connelly adds.

Handling a sensitive issue
As in New Orleans or around Memphis, it is critical for PR pros to be mindful that some people lost their homes or even family members. As such, Connelly notes that promoting tourism “can be incredibly difficult because we do not want to market at the expense of someone else. We are very concerned with local communities and try to do as much as possible to help people with housing or other needs. It is a very sensitive issue.”

Taos PR worked with new Department of Tourism Cabinet Secretary Monique Jacobson on some national news stories to make sure the public knew exactly what was happening in New Mexico.

Taos gets approximately 1 million visitors a year and tourism was up about 7.5% a few months ago, before news of the wildfires spread. Though it is too soon to tell whether or not numbers will be affected, local PR mavens are confident the event was too short-lived and their approach too proactive to have any major affect on full-year results.

Taos' success growing its tourism business lies in PR and four years of marketing efforts that take a multi-pronged approach to attracting existing and new visitors.

Welcoming new visitors
While in the past the average age of a Taos visitor was 54, marketing efforts using social media to highlight the town as not just a relaxing place to unwind, but also as a destination for adventure activities such as skiing, rock climbing, and hiking, has been successful in bringing in incremental younger visitors. Taos is also emphasizing that it is a value destination, where tourists can experience the city from “four stars to under the stars,” says Connelly.

Taos has also been successful at targeting visitors from Colorado, which is just a few hours away, who love the outdoors, but might want an affordable, easy-to-access change of scenery, on or off the ski slopes. In terms of international travelers, Canadians are the top target group, though the town has also been attracting Europeans, having recently seen an uptick in visitors from France.

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