In the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau conference room high above Brickell Avenue, staff members sometimes display an oversized flow chart that shows how the public-relations catastrophes of the early 1980s nearly ruined tourism before the dramatic recovery in recent years. Still, despite its reminders of such bad news as the Mariel boatlift, "civil unrest" (i.e., riots), and wild shootouts with cocaine cowboys, it is headlined "Greater Miami and the Beaches Visitor Rebound." The belief in yet another rebound, that same optimistic spirit, still prevails among those who are on the front lines of the never-ending battle to restore Miami's good name.
Mayco Villafa*a, the bureau's soft-spoken and preternaturally calm director of communications, doesn't need any such history lessons to remind him that a Miami PR man's work is never done. "We're not fooling ourselves that we can make the perception of what happened in Florida and Greater Miami disappear overnight," he says, referring to what he calls the "tragedies" of last fall. But he A along with a New York public relations firm, a local ad agency, and the bureau's members and staff A has done his damnedest to effect such a change in attitudes just in time for Pow Wow, the huge travel trade show that will come to town later this month.
Villafa*a and his fellow flacks have been zealously working since last year to undo the damage caused by the killings of German and British tourists and the resulting firestorm of hostile press. Bureau officials recall that they handled the crisis coolly, although one member of the organization, publicist Seth Gordon, says the group's leaders were all "shell-shocked."
They had good reason to be worried. Five tourists had been killed in Florida since December 1992. Then came the major blow: In April 1993, German tourist Barbara Meller Jensen was robbed and brutally murdered in Liberty City after getting lost driving a rental car from the airport. Several weeks after the Jensen killing, the visitors bureau began soliciting proposals for a new advertising plan to replace the two-and-half-year-old campaign, "Miami. The city with a rhythm all its own." The slogan, which had been intended to sound festive and exotic, now seemed to be almost sinister. Even without the string of murders, it was time to hire a new agency: The original one had folded about two years earlier.
An even greater sense of urgency gripped the bureau in September when Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand, another German tourist, was killed by a rifle blast from a truck that had pulled alongside his rental car as his wife watched in horror. Less than a week later a British man was killed as he and his girlfriend napped at a highway rest stop near Tallahassee. An international media frenzy swept over Miami. The killings were, everyone said, a tragedy for the families of the victims but they were also a catastrophe for the Miami area's $14 billion tourism industry -- and one hell of a marketing challenge.
As Villafa*a tells it when the first round of serious media strafing began following the slaying of Barbara Jensen, "our first concern was for the family." Their selfless compassion was apparently so great that, Villafa*a insists, "I don't think anyone here was in any way thinking of how this was going to affect the market."
When the grieving tourist executives eventually began pondering their strategic response, they looked to a few comparable mega-calamities for insight. "The only thing the Miami situation could be equated to was Tylenol [the 1982 poisoning incidents] or the Exxon Valdez oil spill," Villafa*a says, adding, "It was our obligation to tell our story to the media so we could deal with the perception that crime was out of control here." (One minor problem complicated that task, though: Florida's rate of serious crime has led the nation for several years, and Dade County has by far the highest crime rate of any metropolitan area according to FBI figures. And Florida's reputation as Crime Hellhole Number One was hardly softened by Villafa*a's efforts to explain that there are too many differences between cities to justify such comparisons.)
Each new murder incident put the tourism group and public officials on the defensive. They were forced to answer constant questions about safety, while doing their best to point out that the raw number of homicides and tourist robberies in Dade County had actually gone down in the last few years. Tourist robberies in unincorporated Dade and the City of Miami, for instance, dipped by more than 50 percent from April through October in 1993 as compared to the same period in 1992. The tourist organization had long been concerned about crime; it had lobbied local law enforcement authorities to provide new crime-fighting programs after the shooting of a British couple in 1990, and late last year helped form the anti-crime civic coalition Dade Partners for Safe Neighborhoods.
But even with its clout, the bureau and the tourism industry it represents recognized that it didn't have any direct powers to implement change. "We can't do law enforcement or affect social conditions," Villafa*a says, "but we can help on marketing and promotion."
Enter adman Bruce Turkel and his minions, bearing coconut oil and palm trees.
Turkel Advertising was one of five local agencies that competed last July to win the $1.5 million advertising contract from the visitors bureau. In order to create the right sensory atmosphere for its presentation, the Turkel staff doused sponges with aromatic coconut oil and placed them under each of the seats in the Sheraton Biscayne Bay Hotel ballroom. They lugged in small palm trees and placed them alongside a backdrop of a sunny blue sky with fluffy clouds. And then to warm up the crowd of curious promotional mavens and the nine-member panel of marketing judges picked by the bureau, Turkel executive Oscar Weis read them a poem.
It was a heartfelt paean to the glories of Miami that concluded, "If we tell you value, you'll smile/And if we tell you Miami, you'll rejoice in the spirit of the sun." The "spirit of the sun" was the theme Bruce Turkel's agency had chosen, using his own instincts and research that the bureau had already conducted about tourist views of Miami.
As early as last July the research reports were not encouraging. The data showed that tourists saw Miami as an unfriendly and unsafe place with little to do besides visiting the beach. While total visitors climbed to 8.8 million in 1993 from 7.7 million in 1989, Miami's share of domestic visitors had slipped from 62 percent to 39 percent; the foreign markets were vulnerable as their economies weakened or fears of Miami crime rose. Other warm-weather holiday sites were gaining in appeal and were willing to spend far more to promote themselves. Virtually every major Caribbean island spent up to $12 million on advertising, and even Orlando's spin-off burgs, Kissimmee and St. Cloud, earmarked $7 million for promotion. In short, the advertising candidates had to design a strong campaign with only $1.5 million to repair the image of a city with a lousy reputation.
Even so, Turkel and the other aspirants were confident the challenges could be met. "We decided that Miami is the only warm-weather destination that has everything but mountains and winter sports," Turkel told them with infectious energy. The "spirit of the sun" campaign had an underlying motif of diversity, and each ad highlighted a different leisure pursuit featuring a hand-drawn sun with various Miami images A a plate of paella, a man diving into a pool. They were hardly dazzling advertisements, but Turkel's vibrant presentation -- and underwhelming competition -- made him the leading candidate.
His salesmanship was perhaps more an asset than the ads themselves. Geri Donnely, chairwoman of the marketing committee and a marketing executive with Carnival Cruise Lines, says, "He lit a fire under everything; he had an extraordinary level of enthusiasm and creativity, and he was really serious about wanting our business." He got it.
His firm began work on the project, but before it could be launched, an unpleasant reality intruded: The British and German tourists were gunned down in September and became front-page news around the world; tour operators and local hotels catering to Europeans quickly saw their advance bookings drop by as much as 60 percent. It was time to rethink the ad campaign.
Turkel and most of those associated with the bureau felt it was unwise to try to explicitly reassure consumers about safety. As Seth Gordon puts it, "You have to imply security. You don't want to say, 'Come here and you won't be shot.'" Still, the bureau and Turkel needed to determine how consumers and travel agents felt about Miami following the September killings.
In November Turkel's agency organized a dozen "focus groups" with travel agents and potential Miami visitors in Montreal, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. (As part of the arrangement, their identities were kept confidential.) Unfortunately, the thick report about the sessions offered slim comfort to Miami's boosters, and provided only a few hopeful findings. For instance most tourists didn't completely eliminate Miami as a vacation spot but they had "under the surface" worries that posed dangers for the industry. Said one tourist, "Right now, it wouldn't stop me. But if one more shooting takes place, I think I'd just cross it off my list." Travel agents proved to be even more downbeat. "I don't think Miami's what it used to be," one said. "There's a lot of foreigners there and the city's pretty dirty." With attitudes like that, it's hardly surprising the report dryly noted that travel agents were "disinclined to sell Miami."
Several of the trial ads prepared by Turkel fell flat, too. As predicted the respondents offered the most negative reactions to ads that boldly tried to describe what Miami was doing to fight crime. One ad compared plucky Miami's handling of crime to its weathering of Hurricane Andrew. Said one potential Miami tourist, "Oh, this is terrific! Not only do you have crime, you have hurricanes, too!" These efforts at reassurance had the opposite effect. "Well, if I wasn't worried before," said one leisure traveler, "I am now."
Even Turkel's "spirit of the sun" campaign proved to be a virtual flop. The images were too small to be enticing, and its themes, viewers felt, could apply to any warm-weather location, not just Miami.
Turkel's staff literally went back to the drawing board. After the first set of focus groups they realized they needed a campaign that gave people a more vivid sense of Miami's pleasures and that documented people having fun at all hours of the day and night, thus implying safety. The focus-group report suggested an underlying theme for the new ads: "Things Are Back to Normal and You Should Have Been Here." In other words, you can have fun here and won't get killed, just like the good old days.
As a result of the research the firm devised what it called "Sound Bite" ads featuring photos of smiling people chatting on the beach or at the Clevelander's outdoor bar on Ocean Drive. Suspended over their heads, cartoon-like, were comments about all the enjoyable things Miami offers. One woman, for example, was shown commenting, "He's always late. Probably knee-deep in some sand trap again." The photograph was dated and time-stamped to give it a pseudo-documentary feel, and below it was a calendar listing six weeks' worth of upcoming local events. The ads elicited a positive reaction in the focus groups, and the research report slyly asserted that the emphasis on people and date-stamped photography provided "a subtle reassurance of safety." As Turkel himself points out now, "If people think there's nothing to do here, what's going to fill that [perception] vacuum? Bad things!"
In hopes of keeping away those dreaded negative images the ads began running in December in national and northeastern urban publications ranging from the New York Times to Travel Agent. Early results were not encouraging: The high point of the December response to the Times ad was 62 inquiries to an 800 phone number in one week. But as the winter dragged on and the weather became more miserable in the Northeast the Times ads alone produced 700 inquiries; all told, the "Sound Bite" promotion prompted nearly 8000 information requests between December and April A a respectable showing, particularly since there were no giveaway items offered to those who called.
The ads may have been inane, bland, and pedestrian, but few members of the bureau's advisory committees were critical of them. One who did feel they were too conventional was Tony Goldman, outspoken owner of the Park Central Hotel on South Beach and a member of the marketing committee. "They responded with a by-the-book campaign, but you won't get people to move off their keisters unless they're motivated," he says of Turkel's work. "I would've made the ads more aggressive, edgy, and colorful. It's just blah, blah, blah. What really helped was that it was the sixth-coldest winter in history. My friends in New York couldn't give a shit about crime [in Miami] -- they just wanted to get the hell out of the city."
The bad weather, in fact, provided the inspiration for what Turkel and his admirers saw as a masterstroke, a new "opportunistic" campaign that capitalized on all those northerners freezing their butts off. Not unlike Newton being struck by an apple, Turkel experienced an epiphany after seeing news reports about winter snowstorms: "It's so cold everywhere else, and it's warm and beautiful here." The challenge he faced was conveying that message in a visual, immediately understandable way to a diverse, multilingual audience. One day in early January he was sketching out the elements such an advertisement should feature -- the sun and warm temperatures and frolics on the beach, casually linking them together with plus signs -- when he realized that the creation he needed was staring him in the face: the Miami Vacation Equation.
The first advertisements ran on newspaper weather pages in New York a few weeks later and eventually appeared a few times each in almost twenty publications, from the Montreal Gazette to the Chicago Tribune. The early ones featured a 78-degree temperature reading, plus a family at the beach, plus a shining sun, minus some poor snowbound guy in scarf and ear muffs, all of it equalling Miami. "It gives us maximum exposure at the right psychological moment," Merrett Stierheim, president and CEO of the visitors bureau, told the New York Daily News in February. In addition it had the advantage of being so simple any idiot could understand it, proving once again H.L. Mencken's maxim that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
Turkel's advertising agency began downloading weather information from CompuServe and scheduling media buys in those markets with the coldest temperatures. The ad's format also permitted a quick, flexible response; different symbols could be substituted cheaply, depending on the targeted audience. After the cold weather eased and spring approached Turkel saw the equation serving as the basis for a campaign that could appeal to international audiences anywhere. As one example Turkel said, "For South Americans, we put in a shopping bag." And after one upbeat meeting with some bureau members he crowed, "The equation has taken on a life of its own. We're hitching our horse to a rising star!"
Meanwhile there were still those lingering images of dead tourists, and even the prettiest pictures of Miami couldn't erase them. After the September killings, it was clear something more was needed. What was really needed, of course, had nothing to do with advertising campaigns, as many black Miamians angrily noted at the time. The violence visited upon an occasional tourist was a fact of daily life for many in Miami's black neighborhoods, yet news organizations and law enforcement agencies never reacted with anything close to the outrage they reserved for a victim from Germany. Villafa*a concedes, "The media should be more concerned about the crime issue as it affects residents." In the long run, it serves the interests of the tourist industry for the community to address the underlying causes of crime. But in the short run, the bureau's leadership knew by October they had to use another tactic besides advertising to respond to the onslaught of bad publicity. "We didn't want to be the focus of the world," marketing advisor Susan Lupien recalls.
If Miami faced a "disaster" on the scale of the Tylenol scare, only the savviest professionals could help the city dig itself out of the rubble. Villafa*a recounts, "We started looking at PR firms that were experienced in crisis management." New York's Howard J. Rubenstein Associates quickly became the front-running candidate for the job, in part because of its executives' experience in dealing with the press following ugly incidents: racial violence in Crown Heights, New York, or the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park. The public-relations company began free-lance work for the bureau in the fall and was hired to a $157,000, one-year contract in January.
The bureau's staff and selection committee were especially impressed with Rubenstein's plan to shift away from Miami the sensationalistic media emphasis on crime. "We're taking the heat off Miami by setting up a national coalition on crime," explains Lupien in a moment of exceptional candor.
In contrast to Lupien's no-nonsense talk, the Rubenstein master plan, as laid out in a crisp document, puts a more polite veneer on this clever scheme: "We seek to place the violence experienced in Miami in the context of a massive national problem facing all cities.... Miami, together with other cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, et cetera, will join in a series of efforts aimed at telling the story of how they are fighting back against violence and seeking to prevent it." Gary Zarr, the Rubenstein executive overseeing the Miami account, says preliminary discussions have already begun with the White House, CBS, other TV networks, and the New York City government about creating a national anti-violence campaign. Some of Rubenstein's preliminary efforts, though, have created an unwelcome side effect: even more bad press about Miami.
According to Gary Zarr, "We have two missions: to promote what's great about Miami, to make people happy, excited, and want to come here; the second is to reassure people that they're safe in Miami. There's a delicate balance between the both." It's a balance not so easily achieved.
The safety story the PR firm is pushing covers a wide range of local initiatives, including the formation in April of the Metro-Dade Police Department's Tourist Oriented Police program to thwart crime near the airport, the recent sharp drop in tourist robberies, and the sweeping proposals of the Dade Partners for Safe Neighborhoods coalition led by prominent public officials and private citizens. The safe neighborhoods program calls for everything from 40,000 new prison beds statewide to more funding for preventive programs aimed at helping at-risk children. So far the state legislature has agreed to only a portion of the proposals A and no new funding source for them. But some progress has been made, and Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, for one, believes the Rubenstein group has helped spread the word nationally about the coalition's work. "I heard that at the national governors' conference people talked about Dade Partners," she says with evident pride.
Dade County Commission Chairman Art Teele, too, has been aided by Rubenstein's firm in publicizing the county's anti-crime programs, but the results have hardly been a PR coup. In mid-March he joined three big-city mayors A from Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. A to talk about urban crime problems at a forum sponsored by the New York Post, another Rubenstein client. The forum received widespread print and television coverage, but the resulting headlines emphasized the political leaders' criticism of President Clinton's crime plan. Teele's comments about Dade Partners and other positive steps were generally buried or ignored, except in a separate Post article that concentrated on Miami, tabloid-style: "MIAMI: HOME OF SUN, FUN A & GUNS."
The article, which described Miami as "more like a military zone than a paradise," appeared on page two the day before the Post forum. Accompanying a photo of a smiling Teele was this caption: "We've got problems." Most PR men would have broken out in a cold sweat but Zarr and Villafa*a took it calmly. "We're not worried about one headline," Villafa*a gamely says today, "we're looking for progress on a monthly basis in getting the proper information out about Miami."
So far the public relations team has been more successful at promoting positive Miami coverage unrelated to crime (although it did score a CBS Evening News segment about Miami's crime-fighting progress earlier this year). These stories have usually accompanied special convention sales missions by the tourist bureau to northeastern cities such as Washington, New York, and Chicago. Some business publications, for instance, noted that close to six billion dollars in public and private funds will be spent over the next four years to expand and improve the airport, hotels, and the port of Miami.
Practically every week Zarr, Turkel, and Villafa*a, along with other associates, gather to brainstorm and coordinate their strategies. If one recent meeting served as any guide, the sessions can also be self-congratulatory pep rallies.
Sitting around a table in the bureau conference room overlooking the Miami River, rap-master Turkel held his colleagues almost spellbound with his new plans for promoting the Miami Vacation Equation. Because one central aim of his advertising strategy is to recruit "co-op" corporate partners that will help underwrite the cost, Turkel talked about his plans for a sweepstakes that will advertise both Miami and the corporate sponsors. Displaying a squeeze bottle, he removed from it a long sheet of paper on which families could draw or paste mementos of their trip to Miami. "They could draw things of 'me and mommy at the beach,' a matchbook from Joe's Stone Crab, to show us what their vacation was," he said. "If Elmer's glue is a [sponsor], we'd suggest that they could use Elmer's glue."
With mounting excitement he added, "We'll then do an exhibition at the Herald, UM, wherever we could get a hall, and then we'll have, like, art teachers judge them." The winners would receive another trip to Miami, and then the winning entries would be run as vacation ads in their hometown papers.
Others in the room saw the idea's potential, and added their own suggestions for exploiting the family angle. Villafa*a said, "Kids could be talking about why they love Miami. Wouldn't that be great? It's so innocent."
Mary Louise English, the bureau's associate vice president for public relations, added quickly, "A school campaign! We could ask kids, 'What does Miami mean to you?'"
Turkel reminded them yet again of the virtues of his campaign. "This equation has flexibility," he declared. "It has legs." Then he unveiled more goodies emblazoned with variations of the fabled equation, including a computer wrist rest that can be given to visiting travel writers.
"This is fabulous!" English gushed. "It's high-tech, it's forward-looking, we don't have the language difficulty."
Turkel seized on that point, seeking to define anew his creation. "It's multilingual, it's polylingual."
Zarr, a quick, energetic man, added, "It's nonlingual, it's visual." A moment later he exclaimed, "It's...alingual!"
Turkel burst out: "It transcends
English tried to top him: "Omni-language!"
Zarr summed up, "We've created the international language of advertising, like an international symbol. And Miami is the catalyst for the revolutionary new advertising!"
All the talk about the equation spurred even more product ideas, and as the suggestions piled up, Turkel joked, "Why stop there? How about condoms?"
Zarr said, "That's safe advertising! First you'll have an 'M,' then an 'MI.' It's advertising that grows on you."
The group faced another, more serious, marketing challenge: What themes to emphasize during the bureau's upcoming visit to Chicago in mid-April? They'd originally planned to emphasize the "safety net" of anti-crime programs Miami had been undertaking, but now they thought maybe they could move on to other issues. As things turned out, however, they returned to their standard messages of safety and the six-billion-dollar makeover, while hoteliers and the bureau sales staff visited about a hundred potential convention clients, such as the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association.
They garnered some modest coverage, but also a wary article in the Wall Street Journal -- growing out of the Chicago trip -- about Miami's uphill battle to polish its reputation: "Miami fights to shed its image as a dangerous tourism spot, but it persists." The article pointed out that "foreign tourists continue to avoid the area," and quoted one tour operator who'd lost 85 percent of her European business: "Europeans simply think if they come here, they'll be murdered."
Victor Farkas, committee chairman of the bureau's tourism leisure committee, was angry about what all the PR had accomplished so far. He was speaking at last month's retreat for about 30 bureau members and staffers gathered at the Sheraton Biscayne Bay Hotel to assess their marketing campaign and to determine what locations to target over the next year. Owner of the Thunderbird Resort in Sunny Isles and two other hotels, Farkas said in a blunt Hungarian accent, "Eight months later, I still see the same pictures on CNN of the Alamo car on the highway with the blood running out. The PR is not working. The tour operators are telling us, 'Don't waste time on us, convince the public.'"
While an undercurrent of disappointment colored the meeting, few members were openly critical of the skills of the PR and advertising firms the bureau had hired. Some argued that the bureau's sales and marketing efforts needed to be more aggressive and creative. But they also seemed to recognize that the problems they faced wouldn't quickly go away. As Roxanne Jorge, a Delta Air Lines representative, explained, tourism executives overseas advised her it wasn't worth the effort and expense to lure travelers from England and Germany. "The negative images are still vivid in the consumers' minds," she said. "Let time heal things and go back to the domestic market."
But the debate over proposed primary markets was intense. Hotelier Farkas even suggested looking to a hitherto underutilized resource: Eastern Europe. "They know the magic of Miami, but they don't know about the crime," he explained, raising the bizarre possibility that the bureau would have to go to the farthest reaches of the globe to find people who weren't scared off by Miami's reputation. Ultimately Chicago and Argentina ($365 million in foreign-visitor spending last year) were the big vote-getters among the sixteen primary markets that will get everything from advertising blitzes to elaborate sales missions.
In the weeks before the influential Pow Wow trade show was slated to begin on May 21, with its influx of 1500 tour operators and 250 travel writers, the city's promoters were leaving little to chance. Fifteen host hotels had hired hospitality consultants to train managers and workers in the importance of being gracious to visitors. And the Howard Rubenstein company, as part of its plan to create a crisis team to respond to any potential press frenzies over dead tourists, instructed political leaders and business executives how to handle pesky reporters. Call it Spin Doctoring 101.
By late April, when the media training began, the Zeitgeist surrounding Miami and crime seemed to have shifted in small ways. National television news shows were running features on crime, as always, but this time around the settings were in Kansas and Iowa, not South Florida. When Good Morning America mentioned Miami several weeks ago, it was simply in the innocuous context of showing the Art Deco District at 7:45 in the morning as a backdrop for a weather report. And even another tourist murder in late April created little in the way of unwanted attention.
The degree to which such subtle changes could be credited to the advertising and PR campaigns was open to question. The ads had only a minuscule budget, and Rubenstein's promotional efforts were still in the early stages. But some travel experts believed the PR pros deserved high marks. "When you consider the horrendous amount of negative publicity Miami received," said Richard Copland, director of the New York chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents, "you have to give them credit for keeping things together. Visits could have fallen off far deeper, and you haven't heard about crime for a while."
It might have been just a lull before the next media firestorm, though, so the publicists did not let down their guard. On the last two Fridays in April fifteen of Dade's most important figures gathered in a small conference room at the Sheraton; they met in groups of five for intense sessions conducted by former NBC reporter Richard Valeriani. The lessons were arranged by the Rubenstein firm, which barred any press from attending. Among the leaders who came to learn how to be better spin doctors were Dade County Commissioners Art Teele and Natacha Millan, City of Miami Police Chief Calvin Ross, State Rep. Miguel de Grandy, Circuit Court Judge Ralph N. Person, Dade County School Board member Janet McAliley, Miami Beach Commissioner David Pearlson, Susan Porter Norton, chairwoman-elect of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and Carlos Migoya, president of First Union Bank. Most of the leaders are active in Dade Partners for Safe Neighborhoods, and they practiced getting across their positive message about Miami's crime-fighting measures.
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, for example, was asked to pretend as if she'd been selected to appear on Nightline a few hours after another German tourist was killed. She faced a TV camera while Valeriani sat a few feet off to the side and peppered her with questions. "Yet another German tourist was murdered on your streets," he said. "What do you say to the public?" She answered, "It's horrible and tragic, and our hearts go out to the family, but we need to keep perspective on this." There are, after all, 40 million visitors to Florida each year. Her office would do everything possible to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. "We've made advancements," she added, citing more funding for juvenile justice and added prison beds. "We are a safe community, but we do have a crime problem that mirrors one around the country and around the world."
Rundle says now, "It was nerve-wracking, but I learned very good points: how to stay focused on your message, not to smile too much when you're talking about crime, and how to bridge from the question you're asked to your message."
Others also picked up pointers they hoped would serve them well in future crises. By reviewing the videotape Miguel de Grandy saw that he looked too stiff clasping his hands during the interview, and that he should gesture more comfortably. He also tried out the notion that one murder A although tragic A didn't make Miami different from any other major urban area. "By spinning the message," he says, "it takes the hype out of the situation." Chief Calvin Ross emphasized how his department had launched new preventive programs such as tourist information centers at key highway exits. The training, he says, was "extremely beneficial" in teaching him how to use interviews to get across his message A no matter how far afield from the original question.
Two days later, on April 24, the play-acting threatened to become real for Ross and other Miami officials when the body of a murdered Guatemalan businessman was discovered at the Hotel America in downtown Miami. Early the next morning Villafa*a was on the phone to Zarr in New York trying to work out a response that would help set this apart from other tourist murders. Fortunately for them there was relatively little press interest A except from Channel 7, which led its show with screaming "Tourist Murder" graphics. Ross never had to put his new media skills to the test because he didn't receive any queries about the crime. Those chores were handled by Miami police spokesman David Magnusson, who devised his own damage-control message. He told the Herald, which buried the story on page two of the "Local" section, that this homicide was unlike last fall's killings; the victim wasn't targeted specifically because he was a tourist. "This is a situation where being a person from another country had nothing to do with this guy's demise," Magnusson said. That became the accepted press line, and no media explosion occurred. Many people -- except the dead man's family, of course -- could breathe a temporary sigh of relief.
Ironically Rubenstein's crisis-response plan, which aims to promote a coordinated reaction to crises from local leaders, wasn't ready at the time of the murder. The firm's draft proposal about how to influence press coverage following a high-profile crime or other disaster is now being polished by Villafa*a prior to being submitted to local government agencies for their approval. The still-tentative plan would set up a communications network following an incident and bring together a small group of community leaders A from law enforcement, government, the Chamber of Commerce, and the tourism industry A to plan a "public relations strategy." This Crisis Communications Team, as it's now called, would also designate media spokespeople to address different elements of the story, from assessing a tourist murder's impact on tourism to providing accurate information about the crime itself. The central impetus seems to be to make sure there won't be, as Villafa*a puts it, "too many voices" addressing the subject A people who might offer opinions, often uninformed, that wouldn't play so well in the media.
Villafa*a doesn't see this as manipulation of the press because it won't limit what journalists report; the plan would just make things more convenient for reporters, he says, even bringing together all the relevant bigwigs in one place to answer questions. Yet the proposed response scenario, with the prominent advisory role played by Villafa*a and Zarr, offers numerous opportunities to downplay unpleasant facts and to influence media coverage through the controlled release of information and quotations from civic leaders.
The plan didn't seem to be needed when that poor Guatemalan was killed, but the next slaying could well be different. Some tourism executives are nervous about the possibility of poorly coordinated reactions and hostile media assaults if the plan isn't ready in time for the next ugly crime. "This was a trial run of what could happen A and everyone reacted as they usually do," said one tourism professional. "The press already had the story for hours before [political and police] higher-ups were notified."
It seems, in fact, that the edifice of the new Miami that the publicists and admen are building is far more fragile than anyone would care to admit. The image of a resurgent, crime-fighting Miami, ready for Pow Wow and the years ahead, has been constructed largely with press releases and charming pictures of fun in the sun. It is a house of paper that might still be blown away by the wrong bullet aimed at the wrong person, and there's no room in the Miami Vacation Equation for that.
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