Special Reports

Our beaches are just fine; PR pros use Web to get word out

MANATEE — They have handled every sort of crisis imaginable, including the stink of Red Tide, dangerous hurricanes and even shark attacks.

But BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well, until Thursday belching crude 311 miles away, is a first for public relations professionals because they are combating a perception of oil on local beaches — not its reality.

The coastline of Manatee and Sarasota remains pristine, and to emphasize that fact, tourism officials have turned to social media websites and live web cameras to reassure travelers.

“PR professionals never thought we’d experience this kind of situation in our careers,” Elliott Falcione, interim director for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, told a meeting of the Central West Coast Chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association.

His recommendation for handling it: Use quick, efficient Internet media.

“The online component has really helped — web cam links on the beach — so prospective tourists can see live what our beaches really look like,” he said.

Why not try live videos with fishermen showing fresh fish they had caught? And remember to prominently display its date, to attract last-minute bookings, he suggested.

“That online component is powerful,” Falcione told the group, which met for a session titled, “Communicating the Impact of the Oil Spill.”

Potential visitors may not realize that only a few beaches in the northwest section of the state have been blackened by oil, noted Erin Duggan, communications director for the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“They may not know if they want to come to Bradenton-Sarasota, but they can see live shots of people enjoying the beach — a picture being taken right here, right now,” she said.

Sarasota officials have ramped up their viral and social messaging, and recruited local people to post pictures of a clean Siesta Key, for example, on the bureau’s website.

“Social media has been huge for us,” Duggan said.

The panel included Falcione, Duggan and Larry Allen, Sarasota County communications czar. It was moderated by Barbara Kirkpatrick, senior scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory.

The crowd even got a bit of good news after weeks of depressing headlines about dying birds and despoiled beaches hundreds of miles away.

Both Manatee and Sarasota counties are reporting an increase in “bed tax” collections, the 5 percent tax charged on accommodations, said Falcione and Duggan.

The area seems to be drawing tourists who previously vacationed along the state’s northwest coast, who have decided to come here, instead, numbers suggest.

“A lot of people who traditionally go to the Panhandle are redirecting their thoughts this way,” said Falcione. “It’s spontaneous decision-making.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.

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