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Business Observer Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009 9 years ago

Bad Press

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President Barack Obama's trip to Fort Myers brought an avalanche of negative publicity to Lee County that will take a long time to undo.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

President Barack Obama's trip to Fort Myers brought an avalanche of negative publicity to Lee County that will take a long time to undo.

President Barack Obama visited Fort Myers Tuesday and held up Lee County as an example of what's wrong with America's economy — not exactly what a local chamber or economic development corporation want to see.

In the face of such negative national media attention, public relations professionals say it's critical to push a more positive message after the hordes of journalists leave town.

“People from the outside are always going to take potshots. All of it is self-serving,” says Joe Bouch, president of Chisano Marketing Group in Orlando. Chisano is developing a branding campaign for a six-county region that includes Lee County.

In what some considered humiliating remarks, Obama highlighted Lee County's first-place ranking in the rate of foreclosure last year, its double-digit unemployment rate and plummeting home values.

“I know there are a lot of folks suffering here in Fort Myers,” Obama told a downtown crowd, singling out employers such as Chico's FAS and Kraft Construction for laying people off.

Fort Myers was merely the prop for Obama's real mission.

“It's important we pass the stimulus package,” Obama declared, later announcing to cheers from the adoring crowd that the U.S. Senate had passed its version of the massive spending bill by a slim, partisan margin.

But Obama was just the centerpiece of a smorgasbord of bad press.

The New York Times and New Yorker magazine, drawn by the president's focus on Fort Myers, have highlighted the worst of Lee County's problems to a national audience recently. And the BBC recently hosted a worldwide radio broadcast from a Fort Myers soup kitchen.

Business leaders in Lee County are bracing for more bad press as the pack mentality of the media picks up steam.

“The reality is that this one of those fires going on that you have to let play out,” Bouch says. “Responding to it is making it worse. Don't be a participant in the spread of bad news,” he counsels.

However, Bouch and others say it's important to have a strategy to communicate a more positive message, especially to corporate chiefs who are considering locating an office in Fort Myers or expanding an existing one.

“We need to consistently be sending out a good message,” Bouch says. Personal emails or handwritten notes work well, he says.

It doesn't do any good to lament the bad press that's already been heaped on Lee County. “You can't do anything about what's already been written,” says Lisa Brock, president of Brock Communications in Tampa.

Certainly, Fort Myers is not alone in receiving bad press. “Who's getting good press these days? Nobody,” says Laurel Smith with Fort Myers public relations firm Gravina Smith & Matte. But, she counsels, “You don't ever repeat the charges. Use the opportunity to sing the good songs.”

Business leaders have to walk a narrow line of not given an appearance of uncaring while also not giving into the prevailing bad mood.

“I would be demonstrating sympathy for the very human dramas right now, but then looking forward to more positive days,” says Suzie Boland, president of RFB Communications Group in Tampa. “I would never advise someone to ignore the issues. You'd look like an idiot.”

While not ignoring the negative issues, Boland suggests economic and business leaders point out the positive things in Lee County, even if no one publishes them right away.

“Participate in the story rather than let the story go without you,” she says. “The story's going to be told with or without you.”

In addition, Boland says meeting administration officials traveling with Obama might pay off later. “The contacts with the Obama administration might stand them in good stead,” she says. “Be grateful for the assistance to individuals and talk about the positives.”

Still, bad news lingers longer than good news, says Bouch. “Good news dies in a day; bad news dies in months and months and months.” The key is to communicate that Lee County is a great place to live and do business so those perceptions eventually dissipate. “Show what's happened in the last 25 years,” Bouch suggests.

“It's still survivable,” Brock says. “There has to be a post strategy. Here's what we've got and what's the plan to turn it in our favor?” She cites the example of New Orleans, which has finally started to rebound after Hurricane Katrina.

“It does require inspired leadership,” Brock says. Community leaders sometimes emerge from the ashes of such devastation. “Corral that energy,” she says. “You've got to get your champions.”

It's crucial to ramp up efforts to communicate the positive aspects of Fort Myers and Lee County quickly before more bad publicity comes this way and perceptions become entrenched. “Time is not on your side,” says Brock. “It may seem overwhelming, but you can't let it blind your vision.”

And you have to be realistic that Obama's perception of Lee County as one of the most depressed areas in the country won't evaporate overnight.

“You'd better have you're A-game on,” Brock says.

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