Will BP pay to fix bad publicity?

If Florida's tourism industry has its way, BP will be underwriting advertising campaigns to lure reluctant visitors to the Sunshine State as long as a single tar ball threatens our pristine beaches.

Visit Florida, the folks in charge of nurturing tourism's $65 billion economic benefit to Florida, wants BP to immediately deliver $34.75 million for an emergency marketing campaign.

Florida has no oil slick yet on any of its beaches. But there are troubling signs that all the media coverage of the BP gulf oil spill is scaring away tourism dollars already lean from the recession. Tourist bucks make up a fifth of Florida's taxable sales. Given the wretched condition of state government coffers, losing more tax dollars at this time is a ticket to disaster.

Gov. Charlie Crist wrote BP America president Lamar McKay on Wednesday asking for $34.75 million and explaining why Florida BP's cash is "critical to our economic survival."

It's not the first time Florida's sought emergency funds for struggling tourism. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, people stopped flying, and Florida tourist attractions and hotels shriveled.

"We haven't been impacted — we've been devastated," said Visit Florida at the time.

The state funded a $20 million ad campaign urging people to visit Florida by car. Tourism slowly revived.

After the nasty 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, Florida tapped its emergency fund for ads to counter skittish tourists who read headlines like this one in an October 2004 Travel section of the Indianapolis Star: "Florida Vacation: Fuggeddaboudit!"

Now, unlike 9/11 or rough hurricane seasons, Florida may have a marketing sugar daddy in BP — if the company agrees it is in the corporation's best public relations interest to deliver all or some of the requested $34.75 million.

If BP does not deliver, Visit Florida may be limited to tapping a paltry $500,000 spring ad budget and $2 million more set aside for marketing emergencies. But $2.5 million is not quite the same as $34.75 million.

Fully funded by BP, Visit Florida's marketing strategy would work this way: First, it would get its ad agencies, DDB Miami and others, to produce an online campaign within days to drive potential tourists to the Visit Florida website. TV, radio, print and social network messages would soon follow.

The goal, says Visit Florida, is to minimize the traditional ad campaign in favor of a grass roots approach by driving people to a Florida map on its website. Click on the Florida map and the curious are supposed to see live beach webcams, Twitter feeds and input from locals giving details about the condition of area beaches.

So far, the online map is just taking shape. "It's rough," a Visit Florida spokeswoman admits, but the agency wants to expedite this campaign. Tourism officials swear that even if oil eventually strikes the Florida coastline, they will maintain the map so inquiring folks know where not to go. It's a credibility issue that Visit Florida hopes will pay off in the long run.

Of course, if oil does strike Florida, you better believe that BP will be bombarded with more requests — by then they may become demands — from state officials to simply open its corporate wallet until further notice.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Will BP pay to fix bad publicity? 05/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 9:47am]

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