South Walton Crisis Communications: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Challenge: 

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening destinations such as South Walton, a strand of 15 beach neighborhoods along Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast for which tourism is the number one economic driver.  The South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) and its agency, Curley & Pynn, recognized the potentially severe implications for the area’s beaches, which welcomed 2.2 million visitors in 2009.

In early May, Majority Opinion Research conducted a telephone survey with overnight visitors from summer 2009, and showed that just under half (46 percent) were waiting to make their reservations.  More than 50 percent of those with planned or reserved bookings said they would travel elsewhere if oil were to impact South Walton.  Anecdotal evidence showed immediate cancellations, a significant drop in bookings and hundreds of calls from anxious travelers.

The Solution: 

Curley & Pynn sought to develop a comprehensive crisis communication plan that would help the destination maintain at least 50 percent of pre-incident bookings and projected bed-tax revenues for summer lodgings.  The agency worked with the South Walton TDC to develop communication plans that targeted a wide audience including visitors and potential visitors, lodging partners, the tourism industry, beach vendors, community businesses and residents, the Board of County Commissioners, county officials, state agencies and the media. 

A scenario-based messaging platform was developed to guide communication by segment.  Messages were developed based on potential level of oil impact and separated for media relations, advertising, marketing and information websites, social media and group travel.  Messaging was shared with stakeholders and consultant agencies and incorporated into all aspects of an integrated campaign.  Public relations took the lead in driving the overall content strategy.  Every day during the crisis, all consultants participated in a conference call to receive updates on the beaches’ status and to discuss any needed changes to messaging strategy.

A blog,, was established immediately as the central source of real-time news and information on current beach conditions.  The blog featured two daily posts with supporting photography from the destination’s beaches.  The blog allowed the TDC to separate its branded marketing website from the crisis, while providing a resource for timely, factual information.  For the nearly 60 days in which the beaches had no oil impacts, the site focused on detailed reports about oil location and movement, as well as the steps that were being taken to protect the beaches and other environmental assets.  Once the beaches were impacted, the website remained transparent, providing details about the level and location of impacts and what steps were being taken to address those impacts.  The site was heavily promoted through broadcast, online and print media outreach and quickly became the go-to resource for all key stakeholders seeking accurate, up-to-date information.

Knowing that it was imperative to share timely information and messaging with the local tourism industry, Curley & Pynn and the TDC maintained consistent communication with industry partners.  “Palm cards” containing appropriate messaging were regularly updated and distributed to the front-line employees who were called on to answer questions from guests.  Weekly emails were sent to more than 500 lodging partners and regular conference calls were conducted with the local tourism industry to ensure that all were on-message.  A messaging workshop was held to further train partners on messaging.  As well, the TDC’s public relations department and Curley & Pynn participated in daily calls and meetings at the County’s Emergency Operations Center to remain up-to-speed on the latest information.  This led to a decision in which the TDC and Curley & Pynn were given lead responsibility for coordinated messaging through all government agencies. 

A constant flow of information was maintained via media missions, deskside appointments, in-market live broadcasts and national media outreach.  Satellite media tours in advance of the July Fourth holiday and following the capping of the well resulted in approximately 60 live interviews.  A tour of key markets resulted in more than 10 broadcast interviews and significant print and online coverage.  A list of top travel media familiar with the destination received direct appeals for help in communicating that the beaches remained open for enjoyment.  The agency remained in constant contact with roving cable and network news reporters visiting the Gulf Coast to ensure they had accurate information about day-to-day conditions of the beaches.

Social media was an essential tool used to communicate the beaches’ daily status with the public.  Curley & Pynn also created CNN iReports to counter user-generated reports that were factually incorrect.  Testimonial videos were further created and shared via social media channels and “loyalists” were encouraged to re-post information.  A photo contest was held on Facebook and linked with VISIT FLORIDA’s Share A Little Sunshine campaign. 

The TDC also recorded testimonials from beachgoers, showing open beaches and positive visitor experiences.  Celebrity spokesperson PSAs were produced, using trusted celebrities such as Florida State University Seminoles football coach Bobby Bowden and singer Amy Grant, who both have research-based appeal with the destination’s target audience.

The Results: 

A survey of large bed-tax collectors showed a drop in summer reservations of just 13 percent over the previous summer, and bed-tax collections were down only 20 to 30 percent overall.  Visitation to the blog far surpassed Curley & Pynn’s goals throughout the crisis period, and surpassed 650,000 views by the end of the summer.  The blog was cited as an information resource in extensive news coverage, including daily CNN Online updates.  Target market print and broadcast media portrayed local beaches as open for business and resulted in millions of summer impressions.