Tallahassee, FL – Florida's coastal businesses have been battling a public relations nightmare as pictures of oil in the Gulf make headlines around the world. P-R professionals gathered in Tallahassee last week to talk about how the crisis is being handled in the media and what's being done to get the correct information to travelers.
Over lunch, they heard from some of those on the front lines, like Chris Thompson. He heads up Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency.
"The most critical thing is to make sure that those people that have already made vacation plans or are thinking about making vacation plans can understand what is the perception versus the reality with the destination that they've already planned to come to or are thinking about coming to."
Thompson's primary concern is holding on to the approximately eighty-million people who visit the state every year. Leading up to Memorial Day weekend, there were some cancellations at hotels in the Panhandle. Now, Thompson says there are far fewer calls than normal coming in from potential visitors.
"That's the scary part because that's the missed opportunity We won't really know the true impacts until we can get a month away, two months away, six months away and we can start comparing month to month numbers, year to year numbers and know what the actual impact was. But there is going to be an impact. There's no question about that."
Visit Florida is running ads that have evolved as the oil has moved. A three week ad blitz is underway using money supplied by BP, and leaders are making the news show rounds. Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, has been on state and national programs trying to set the record straight about what's really happening along the coast.
"What's made this unique is it almost would be a little bit of a reminder of the year that the hurricanes came and they left and they went out and they spun and they came back and they left and they spun and they came back and they did that five times. And I kind of feel like we're in that same spinning cycle again."
Dover says some association members, especially those along the state's northwest coast, are starting to panic about whether they will be able to stay viable in the future.
"In the Panhandle, this is their do-or-die season. They do 70% of their annual business from Memorial Day to Labor Day."
The PR experts refer to the spill in the Gulf as the oil spew crisis. Visit Florida's Chris Thompson says the usual crises Florida handles, like hurricanes and wildfires, have a predictable ending.
"What we're dealing with right now is something that's happening, still happening, and unfortunately we probably haven't seen the worst yet. So we don't know when that point is going to be when it ends and we recover."
The biggest challenge, according to Thompson, has been fighting the sensationalism in the media. So, one of the first things his agency did was create the Florida Live page at visitflorida.com so web surfers could see up to date pictures from the beach.
"We real early on realized that in order for us to survive this, in order for us to manage this, our challenge was going to be to try to be as transparent as we can from up front, from the very beginning. Be credible, be accurate with the information, and allow it to be real time."
Joanne McNeeley, the state's Bureau Chief of Seafood and Aquaculture Marketing, is charged with pushing the message that our seafood is safe, abundant and available. She showed how internet marketing is being used to counter misperceptions that are hurting the industry.
"We have where fish are caught throughout the state so people can realize that we when have grouper in season, it doesn't have to be caught in the Panhandle. It's also caught down in South Florida and over on the Keys. Our shrimp is just extremely abundant right now and being harvested."
McNeeley says seafood for sale in restaurants or retail shops has been inspected. But as a precaution, the state is developing stickers to put on the packaging saying it's safe.
"Right now, 98-percent of our state waters are open. And then there's 67% of our federal waters are open. The federal waters represent Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, so we are fishing. We are fishing every day."
There is also a hotline that's updated every afternoon spelling out where the waters in the Gulf are closed. The number is 800-357-4273. The Florida Oil Spill Information line is 888-337-3569.
Florida has around twelve-hundred miles of coastline.