ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to spend big bucks to attract Twitter titans, influential Instagramers and Snapchat stars to the Sunshine City.
And, in an election year for the mayor, his administration hopes that these "influencers" will write, tweet and post good things about the city's arts, culture and nightlife.
The "influencers" campaign is part of a $225,000 request to spread the "great things" going on in St. Petersburg to their respective audiences. Another chunk of money would be used to pump up interest in the city's entrepreneurial community. The city would partner with Spark Branding House, a Tampa firm, to build the campaign.
Nina Mahmoudi, the city's creative services manager, pitched the idea to a skeptical City Council on Thursday. However, council members were already irked that the high-priced item was added to the meeting's consent agenda at the last minute, where it was buried among at least 18 other items ranging from soil boring sampling and a water main easement. The consent agenda is typically approved in full without debate.
Council member Ed Montanari pulled the item off the consent agenda and asked Mahmoudi to explain the details. She described it as an innovative way to brand the city.
"It's a trend that's highly recommended by all the conferences we go to," she said.
Spark will help teach the city how to pick the right influencers and get the most bang for its bucks, Mahmoudi said.
City Council member Amy Foster said she is concerned about the authenticity of the stories. She talked about a story written about a local gallery owner last year that Foster said contained inaccuracies and caused friction between the owner and her artists.
"I want to make sure the kinds of stories these influencers tell are truthful," Foster said. "In this era of fake news, I want to make sure that what we're putting out is fair and accurate."
Influencers gain followers from being authentic, Mahmoudi said. The city wouldn't tell them what to write, photograph or film.
"We can't force them to write anything," she said.
City Council member Charlie Gerdes suggested the request be tabled until the council can see the details of the contract. That motion passed unanimously.
Later, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby denied that there were any political motivations behind this marketing strategy.
Does paying for good press —or at least positive social media messaging — muddy the line between policy and politics in an election year?
"I want to draw a bright clear line between anything that happens in the city and anything that happens in the mayor's campaign," Kirby said. "There is no crossing that line and none of us do it." Added Tomalin: "There is a very distinct line between the campaign and the work of the city. And nothing related to the campaign transpires inside City Hall."
Tomalin said the city's marketing budget has flatlined since $750,000 was added to Kriseman's first budget in 2015. The $2.9 million total from that year is roughly equivalent to the currently budgeted $3.1 million factoring in salary increases, she said.
The amount devoted to external marketing like influencers has declined since last year from $351,000 to $281,000, she said. The influencers request comes out of existing budgeted funds.
Tomalin said the online stories, photos, tweets, videos and other posts about the city would not be intended for residents. Instead, she said, the strategy is meant to lure visitors from other parts of the country and world.
"That's the entirety of the strategy," Tomalin said.
Local tourism agencies like Visit St. Pete/Clearwater in Pinellas County and Visit Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County already pay to bring in travel writers to tour the bay area.
Kriseman ran in 2013 on a promise to elevate the profile of the city, Kirby said, and the influencer campaign is part of fulfilling that promise.
"They're not there to talk about the great things the mayor has done," Kirby said of the influencers. "They're there to talk about the great things happening in the city."
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