A little help: Tourism bureau seeks PR firm to turn around its image

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It’s going to take more than an ad campaign to rehab Charlottesville’s image after the white supremacist violence of 2017.

SUSAN PAYNE It’s going to take more than an ad campaign to rehab Charlottesville’s image after the white supremacist violence of 2017. SUSAN PAYNE

Before the summer of 2017, a Google image search of the word “Charlottesville” might have turned up some photos of our picturesque purple mountains, or the stately columns of Monticello and the University of Virginia. These days, as demonstrated in the recent Charlottesville documentary, it turns up images of flag-waving neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Now, with the city back in the national news for the trial of accused murderer-by-car James Fields, the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau is looking for a little help. Specifically, the bureau released a request for proposal seeking a public relations firm to turn around the area’s negative image, which stems, it says, from “the takeover of our town by a white nationalist rally organized by Jason Kessler.”

“There’s been a lot of negative press,” says the bureau’s interim director Adam Healey. “There’s no doubt it’s impacted tourism.”

The number one metric of the tourism industry is revenue per available hotel room, says Healey. “For Charlottesville and Albemarle, that number is down 4 percent while every other major market in the state is up.”

He attributes the decrease to the “public relations challenge” since the Unite the Right rally, as well as underfunding of the visitors bureau—it gets 20 percent of the transient occupancy tax while top tourist destinations in other states get 100 percent of that tax. Marketing and branding efforts have so far failed to establish this area as “the crown jewel of Virginia,” he says.

Tourism is about jobs and quality of life, he says. “It’s a driver of economic development.”

The PR firm will work with Healey and Clean, the bureau’s Chapel Hill-based ad agency, which it hired in 2017. “We need both of those,” says Healey. A typical retainer for this type of PR work is around $8,000 a month.

Healey wants a public relations firm experienced in crisis communications to be proactive in changing the narrative about Charlottesville.

While the events of August 12 were a crisis, Batten Fellow and global communications expert Barie Carmichael says at this point, Charlottesville has “an issue,” which requires a long lead time to mitigate. “It’s not a flip-the-switch situation.”

Carmichael, who worked for Dow Corning during its silicone breast-implant crisis, says it’s important not to assume everyone associates Charlottesville with white supremacists without doing the research to find out exactly what the target market—tourists—thinks. Without research first, it’s a “fire, ready, aim” strategy that’s pretty much a useless exercise.

“Smart companies are going out and looking at social media” and using analytics to find out what people are already talking about, she says. In doing so, a firm may find “unexpected allies” that can help change the narrative.

“Communications issues management doesn’t begin with what you say,” she says. “It begins with what’s received.”

Healey notes that 1,500 hotel rooms are currently being developed that will increase the area’s capacity 35 percent in the next three years. The PR firm will get a one-year contract that can be renewed for an additional four years, hopefully long enough to fill all those hotel rooms.

“We’ve got to be proactive about public relations,” he says. “There’s been a lack of accountability.”

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