Friday, May 25, 2018
Business

It's round two for mayor's idea to hire social media 'influencers' to promote St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — The "influencers" are back.

In early March, Mayor Rick Kriseman was criticized for a last-minute attempt to get the City Council to approve spending $225,000 on influencers — social media stars — to market the Sunshine City's good vibes.

Council members balked at the request to hire influential individuals who would have promoted the city to their followings on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and other platforms. They complained that the mayor's office submitted the proposal too late for them to vet or debate the idea. They tabled the measure.

But the mayor is set to give it another try at today's council meeting. This time, Kriseman is asking only for $92,500 to start spreading his vision of the St. Petersburg brand.

If the council approves the proposal, the influencers could start work by late June or early July — in the midst of Kriseman's re-election campaign.

In March, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby insisted that the influencers campaign had nothing to do with electoral politics. A city marketing official reiterated that Wednesday.

The contract would go to Sparks Branding House, a Tampa marketing firm. The list of social media stars who would market the city would target the national market, not local residents, said St. Petersburg Creative Services manager Nina Mahmoudi.

"So, by design, it would be talking to people outside St. Pete," Mahmoudi said.

The program's intent is to raise awareness about the city's economic development potential and its arts and culture scene, she said, not to reach St. Petersburg voters.

She said similar programming from Tampa Bay's tourism marketing agencies, which has long been used to draw visitors, doesn't push the message St. Petersburg wants to get out.

"That's tourism marketing," Mahmoudi said. "We're focused on economic development. That's a totally different target audience and completely different messaging."

She added that the mayor's idea is backed by a recent study from the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the city that concluded a branding effort would help elevate St. Petersburg's profile in terms of culture and economic development.

Mahmoudi said the city does not plan to employ any social media stars from St. Petersburg. But she didn't rule out hiring from the Tampa Bay region.

Kriseman's idea has already become a campaign issue. Former Mayor Rick Baker, who is running against the incumbent in the Aug. 29 primary, told the Tampa Bay Times at his May 9 campaign rollout that he considered the influencer idea to be a prime example of his opponent's "reckless spending."

City Council member Charlie Gerdes plans to vote for the measure, saying his work on the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council has convinced him that social media marketing works. But he had not considered its potential political uses.

"I could see how that could happen," Gerdes said, "but it wasn't in my mind."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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Published: 05/25/18