Returning Los Cabos from a place where bodies are 'hung over bridges' to a beachside paradise

After a few violent incidents involving tourists, Los Cabos Tourism Board hired Ogilvy to promote its five-point safety plan and change the narrative.

Company: Los Cabos Tourism Board
Campaign: Los Cabos Crisis Management Work
Agency Mix: Ogilvy (PR, media relations)
Duration: August 2017 - present
Budget: In the six-figures

Los Cabos, a Mexican municipality popular with tourists, made national headlines in August 2017 when three men were gunned down on the beach. Violence and criminal activity in the country prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel advisory warning visitors to the region to take extra precautions.

Recognizing the scale of the crisis, the Los Cabos Tourism Board sprang into action. With financial support from both the public and private sector, the municipality's leaders developed a plan to address safety concerns. In September, it hired Ogilvy to spearhead the region’s crisis management campaign.

The campaign’s strategy was to "neutralize the negative and promote the positive," said Jennifer Risi, Ogilvy’s chief communications officer and MD of media influence.

This fell into three main phases: balance the international media coverage; reset the dialogue by emphasizing the isolated nature of the violent incidents; and promote a new narrative, one that focused on Los Cabos’ five-point security plan and depicted the region as beautiful, friendly, and most importantly, a safe place to visit.  

With input from private stakeholders, the Mexican government, and international bodies such as the Overseas Security Advisory Council, Los Cabos developed a five-point security plan to protect tourists and return the municipality back to safety. The initiative included protocols around surveillance, response, communication, and collaboration.

"We opened a direct dialogue with the U.S. government, which provided us with key information about what needed to be done," said Rodrigo Esponda, MD of Los Cabos Tourism Board.

After helping Los Cabos package the plan into something that could be easily communicated to reporters, Ogilvy created a list of media targets.

"We called them ‘uber media,’" she said. "The CNNs, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journals, the CNBCs of the world -- these were the outlets media listened to," Risi said. "If CNN is going to have a balanced story, other outlets are either going to want their own interview or start looking at it in that way as well."

One isolated article neutralizing the negative and promoting the positive was too large a task, even for a top publication. Changing the overarching narrative around Los Cabos and safety instead required a groundswell of coverage.

"It was a contentious media marketplace, where consumers were not traveling to Los Cabos because of what they were seeing on TV; they saw bodies being hung over bridges," Risi said. In December 2017, the bodies of six men were found hanging from bridges in the area. 

To counterbalance these images, the strategy was to say, "Yes, that’s happening, but it’s happening in isolation and there is already a five-point plan that the Los Cabos Tourism Board put in place to counter anything you are seeing and hearing," explained Risi.

Ogilvy reached out to hundreds of outlets, pitching Esponda as an expert source on safety in the region. Risi estimates Esponda did more than 100 interviews in the first nine months of the campaign. More than 20 journalists were flown to Los Cabos so they could see what the situation was like for themselves.

"For an earned media strategy to work, you need to hit everybody and hit them more than once," Risi said.

Results didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it took repeated conversations over 18 months and the trickle of a number of news stories to begin to turn the narrative, Risi said.

But as the safety plan began to see results -- violent crime has fallen 90% since last year, according to government and tourism authorities -- that were, in turn, covered by the media, the narrative began to shift.

In March, the Dallas News ran a piece in which a beach-goer in Los Cabos was quoted saying that he was "more concerned about going to Chicago." The reporter Alfredo Corchado had been flown to the state to get an on-the-ground feel of the situation. While the campaign’s results were gradual, this story marked a turning point.

"Dallas is a key [tourist] market, the second largest after Los Angeles," Esponda said.

In addition to the Dallas News, the campaign led to favorable press coverage in Forbes, The New York Times, Travel Weekly, and Travel Pulse, among the more than 130 pieces in mainstream, travel, business and trade media outlets. Altogether, the press coverage has noticeably shifted. When you Google "Los Cabos safe," for example, the first result is a Forbes article that emphasizes Los Cabos’ security plan and quotes Esponda.

Los Cabos has seen tourism numbers gain in strength since the campaign began. According to the Hotel Association of Los Cabos, the number of domestic and international visitors is up 6% from last year, which Esponda attributes to the increased safety measures, a drop in violent crime, and a more friendly media landscape.

"There’s been a big shift in perception," he said.   

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