Man The Ink-Stained Battle Stations

This morning in my email, I received this message from Stephen Perry, President and CEO of New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau:

The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) is working aggressively to ease customer fears, preserve future business and mitigate brand damage surrounding the outrageous violence that occurred on October 31 and in the early morning hours of November 1, when thousands of visitors and locals were celebrating Halloween.

Needless to say, we are disgusted and disappointed that a small group of young men, linked in a culture of violence, are determined to engage in behavior that will harm a great city and our lifeblood of tourism. Enough is enough.

Within minutes of learning of the shootings, our team had mobilized with Mark Romig of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, the Mayor’s Office, the New Orleans Police Department and tourism industry leaders. We sought counsel from the crisis experts at Weber Shandwick, our New York-based global PR agency, and handled dozens of media inquiries.

Now we are talking and meeting one-on-one with dozens of corporate and association meeting customers and leisure travel professionals. Our team has a strategy for dealing with crime and tourism questions on social media sites.

The talking points that I issued yesterday were designed for the 1,100 CVB members’ front-line and sales employees to address guest and customer questions about the incident and visitor safety. Because our customers look to us for reassurance and for calm, we are very judicious about what we say publicly to the media. All of my comments are picked up by clipping services our clients employ and we must be honest, but reassuring.

The CVB is a sales and marketing organization, not law enforcement. We intentionally designed the talking points to be concise, factual yet direct in addressing a difficult situation, while keeping in mind that all communications from the CVB could be covered by the national press or misused by competitor cities.

First (cynical) paraphrase: “If New Orleans can’t manage the problem, at least we can manage the message.” And there is something disconcerting about the whole scramble-the-choppers/mobilize-the-troops tone to Perry’s letter, as well as the phrase “competitor cities.” A vision emerges of a war room dedicated to talking points and spin—useful, I suppose, but I wish I was reading about the city’s war room dedicated to stopping this sort of crime.

Still, it’s encouraging that Perry emphasizes addressing the issue factually and concisely. In 2007, Essence asked me to write a blog about life in New Orleans in the run-up to the Essence Music Festival, with the idea of letting people know that it was okay to return to New Orleans. Initially, those above me didn’t want me to talk about crime. When readers asked about crime, I ignored the questions or tried to move the conversation to something else. Eventually, people started writing that if they were asking about crime and I was talking about restaurants, then their questions were implicitly answered. At that point, those above me agreed that I should address crime in much the same way that Perry outlines.

The sort of crime that manifested itself on Halloween is only nominally a police problem, though. Since guns and shooting were involved, they need to deal, but I believe Chief Serpas when he says the French Quarter was full of police officers on Halloween. Do we really want a military-style presence at our major events?

The larger issue is the self-absorbed pessimism that is the product of poverty in New Orleans. If you don’t believe you have a meaningful future, deterrents such as prison or worse don’t pose meaningful threats. If the only thing you own is your rep or your neighborhood’s rep, then it’s worth protecting with disproportionate force. If selling drugs is the only clear path you see to the things that supposedly make up “The Good Life,” then that way holds more appeal. If there’s no incentive to color inside the lines, why do it?

The police have to deal with the violence, but what they’re dealing with is the product of city-wide failure in education, a national economic failure to create jobs, and a failure to address the less obvious forms of racism that force young African Americans to grow up in poverty. It remains pervasive, even if there’s no Grand Dragon on horseback directing the racist, torch-wielding charge.

In that context, it’s sad when the most seemingly organized response comes from the PR folks.