Gulf Coast tourism industry ramps up social media efforts amid oil spill worries

As last month's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to scare off vacationers from beaches in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, tourism departments in those states are using social media to provide user-generated updates via photos and text.

As last month's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to scare off vacationers from beaches in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, tourism departments in those states are using social media to provide user-generated updates via photos and text.

The tourism departments of all four Gulf States have launched top-of-the-page advisories on their websites, with up-to-date information about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of them are also leveraging their websites and social media properties to encourage vacationers and residents visiting the beaches to upload their post-oil spill photos.

The goal is to show people that the beaches are clean and still open, despite some media reports and rumors to the contrary, says Kathy Torian, corporate communications manager for Visit Florida, Florida's official tourism marketing corporation.

Visit Florida is encouraging travelers to upload photos to its Facebook page. It has also launched Florida Live, which links to live webcam and twitter feeds from some of its 3,000 tourism partners around the coast. Torian tells PRWeek the plan was to launch Florida Live later this year, but the crisis fast tracked those plans.

“So far, we've seen no impact here due to the oil spill, and we want consumers around the world to see for themselves so they can make truly informed travel decisions,” she says. And should the webcams start showing evidence of the spill, “we won't take those images down. We need to inform people either way, so they can decide to visit a different part of the state or a different beach. We need to be a trusted source of information.”

Florida Live was developed internally

She adds the webcams also help refute inaccurate reports, including an erroneous tweet from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, picked up by media, which said that tar balls had washed up on popular Destin beach.  

“People could look at our webcams in real time, and see that the water was absolutely clean and people were playing in it,” says Torian. “This tool helps deal with rumors and misinformation that might make people change their travel plans.”

On the oil spill update page of its website, The Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau is also encouraging people to upload recent photos and text. Its social media team is also making frequent updates on     Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and its other social media channels, says Kim Chapman, PR manager for Alabama Gulf Coast CVB. “We want people to contribute what they see—or, in fact, what they don't see,” she adds.

Alabama's tourism industry has also been dealing with bogus reports, including a widely circulated e-mail that claimed the beaches had been closed by the Governor. The Alabama Tourism Department quickly issued a press release refuting the report, and has launched a $1.5-million marketing campaign to assure visitors the beaches are clean and open, despite reports of isolated tar debris.

Alabama Gulf Coast CVB now plans to host press trips “to get media down here and let them see with their own eyes what our visitors are seeing,” Chapman says. “It's still in the works, but we are setting up different goals for different trips and different targets of media.”

Janice Jones, manager of media/PR at Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, says it has also used all channels possible to let people know the Mississippi Gulf Coast is open for beachgoers as well as recreational fishermen. 

“We've been trying to get the word out by updating people through Facebook, Twitter, and our website ,” says Jones. 

She says a TV ad, which will air in nearby states, is currently in development and will also be posted on its website.

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