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VisitFlorida execs short on PR skills

The folks who market Florida to the world need to market themselves.

That was obvious after state senators' intense questioning of tourism executives at a budget workshop this week that was more like something out of the Army-McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.

The scene was a vivid reminder that when legislators ask the penetrating budget questions that need to be asked, they elicit mountains of good information. And, in a time of little money, politicians are in a foul mood and eager to string up every hapless bureaucrat they can find.

It's a perilous time to walk the Capitol's corridors while freely spending tax money.

A public-private tourism promotion program called VisitFlorida has a $99 million budget, including $35 million this year from taxpayers (thanks partly to Gov. Charlie Crist, who restored $10 million that lawmakers took away in a recent special session).

Some of that money (about $600,000, including brochures and postage) went to a call center in Kansas City, Mo. — of all places — where poorly informed operators reportedly dispense bad information to tourists.

This hardly fits the definition of an agency's core mission that is the mantra du jour of lawmakers searching for nickels and dimes to save. It's doubly ironic, considering Florida is viewed as the call center capital of the country.

"You do what you want with Disney's money and Universal's money," lectured Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who chairs the Senate budget panel overseeing tourism. "If you're going to take $35 million of taxpayer money, you're going to do your best to contract with the people of Florida."

Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, told of a call center operator who said landlocked Tallahassee has a beach and Miami is the state capital.

As the call center controversy subsided, VisitFlorida executives were pelted with questions the next day about six-figure salaries, five-figure bonuses, overseas travel and other expenses. Largely absent was any serious discussion of how well VisitFlorida performs its mission of getting tourists here.

With two TV cameras positioned in the hearing room, the questioning intensified.

When the tone of the questioning turns hostile, and any lawmaker appears to be generating heat, not light, there are murmurs in the audience of a "hidden agenda."

It's the job of legislators, our elected representatives, to come to work well prepared and eager to drill deep down into agency budgets. But the budget shortfall is so vast that legislators should be just as vigilant at scrutinizing every agency of government, lest they appear petty by flailing away at relatively minor gaffes like an out-of-state call center.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said VisitFlorida's $85,000 budget for four board meetings a year suggests the agency has "missed the core message" — attracting tourists.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, struck a balance and provided a sense of proportion by reminding them that the state Department of Transportation controls about $9 billion a year.

"I only wish we could give them this level of scrutiny," Dockery said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

VisitFlorida execs short on PR skills 02/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 7:01pm]
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