SAN DIEGO — In a hushed beige room at San Diego's Hotel Handlery, clusters of well-dressed American public relations executives mingled. The February luncheon — formally titled "How PR Shaped Baja California's Resurgence" — was an insider's look the inner workings of a highly regarded campaign.
The pay-per-plate event, thrown by the Public Relations Society of America, paid tribute to the ongoing PR campaign that recently won a 2012 industry award for "outstanding public relations tactics." Attendees dined on tilapia and eggplant parmesan while listening to panelists talk about the nuts and bolts of Baja's image overhaul.
"We're here to talk about an extremely successful PR campaign that really changed the conversation about Baja from media attention on violence to one focused on Baja's food, arts, and cultural scene," the emcee announced.
Allison + Partners, an international firm with offices in San Diego, was hired by the coastal Mexican border state of Baja California Norte to shift public attention away from violence, in an attempt to "reactivate" American tourism in the region.
The tourism industry withered in recent years, largely due to insecurity and transnational crime organizations warring in the region. Baja's historic reputation for sun and surf was eclipsed by gruesome headlines including beheadings, kidnappings en masse, and frequent shoot-outs.
But in 2010, the state contracted with Allison + Partners to help fix its image. The ongoing campaign is shifting public attention and generating positive stories to place in the media focused on food, art and wine.
Since the campaign began, tourism is slowly making a comeback in Baja. In 2009, as violence peaked, hotel occupancy in Tijuana dropped to just 35 percent, said Juan Tintos, the state’s Secretary of Tourism. Today, it's risen to 57 percent. In fact, for every year since 2011, tourism has grown incrementally better.
Despite the intense marketing and advances made in Baja, across Mexico, tourism overall continues to falter.
Pedro Azcárraga Andrade, president of Mexico's Consejo Nacional Empresario Turístico, announced at a press conference in late January 2013 that the nation's tourism industry has lost $12 billion since 2008. He issued a call for the federal government to change its strategy to "better the country's image abroad."
It might seem like a tall order.
Current travel warnings published by the U.S. Department of State instructs Americans to "defer non-essential travel" to parts of 15 states in Mexico.
Baja California Norte used to be on the list — but it's not any more. The current State Department travel warning advises against traveling at night, and warns visitors that targeted assassinations continue to take place, sometimes in broad daylight.
It also notes that 25 Americans were murdered in Baja between July 2011 and July 2012.
But compared to American cities, Tijuana's current murder rates seem to be fairly average. Between July 2011-2012, according U.S. State Department statistics, 351 homicides occurred in Tijuana, a city of an estimated 1.3 million people.
Comparatively, Detroit had 344 murders—but that city's population is about half that of Tijuana's, with around 700,000 people.
The U.S. cities of Memphis, Oakland, St. Louis, and Flint, Michigan have statistically fewer murders than Tijuana.
Still, in Mexico, an accurate tabulation of homicide and crime rates can be difficult to come by. Statistics from the Attorney General's Office can be incongruent with those of other government bodies.
A recent report from The Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice noted that in 2011, just 16.4 percent of crimes in Mexico were investigated and prosecuted.
Political analysts like Alejandro Hope have called the country's statistics of homicides related to organized crime "worse than useless," saying that they only confuse matters since they're not based on real criminal investigations or evidence.
In 2008, former Rosarito Mayor Hugo Torres told the San Diego Union-Tribune that tourism suffered in part due to “strong smear campaigns from some California media.”
In February, at the PR luncheon, Torres furthered his argument, saying media attention to crime and brutality negatively skews the way the public perceives Mexico overall.
Juan Tintos, who served as Baja's Secretary of Tourism from 1992-2001, has now been back in the position since 2010. To him, the Allison + Partners Baja campaign has been a clear success.
"We encouraged American tourists to visiting and sharing the positive side of Baja," he said. "We used key messages by very famous people, testimonials, celebrities, and the American ex-pats. The key message is that Baja California is a safe destination."
Tintos added that planting "positive" sources and prefabricated pro-tourism organizations in the news media has helped.
So has bringing movie stars and celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain to the region, a move he said helped shift the focus tremendously from murder to food and wine.
"We went through a drought with the film studios here in Baja, where for about seven or eight years, we didn't have any type of productions," Tintos said. "We reactivated the film industry, bringing people here to the state like Sylvester Stallone, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, and most recently Robert Redford…"
Powerful media outlets including The New York Times and the New Yorker published stories on Tijuana's food scene, heightening the positive buzz.
American ex-pat Marjorie "Maggie" Drake keeps track of the negative side of coverage on her blog, "Maggie's Madness Drug War Chronicles," which she's penned from Baja since 2006. Drake's own amalgamation is an antidote of sorts to the positive stories: She details and translates stories about regional crime and violence as reported by the local press and eyewitnesses like friends and neighbors.
Baja California spent a reported half million dollars on public relations in 2009 alone, with Mexico's federal government shelling out another half-million. Back then, the firms Fleishman-Hillard and 1st Strike Creative were retained to help repair the state's image.
Today, neither Tintos nor Allison + Partners will disclose the price tag for Baja California's new image. Tintos said he prefers to think about the cost in terms of cost-benefit for the tourism industry, an amount he said is in the millions.
But a new image has emerged: The state has evolved from being best known for dismembered bodies to being hailed as a culinary epicenter with a vibrant art and music scene.
"A big part of our campaign is actually bringing journalists across the border to experience Baja for themselves," said Annie Drury, an account executive from Allison + Partners who has worked on Baja's image for years. "Journalist fam trips, sometimes they're individual trips, sometimes they're group fam trips… "
"Fam trips" are what's known as familiarity trips, or paid junkets to Mexico used in promotion. The current Baja campaign by Allison + Partners snared a 2012 a Bernays Bronze Award, given in recognition of "outstanding public relations tactics."
The PR firm tracks this change in perception by hiring an independent polling company working with the Mexican research institute COLEF to evaluate the efficacy of their tactics. In December, 600 Southern Californians were surveyed.
"Respondents who perceive Baja as unsafe, that decreased by 16 percent over the past year," said Richard Kendall of Allison + Partners. "Those who would not visit Baja because of a perceived danger, crime, or drugs decreased by 44 percent."
But perception and spin aside, General Counsel Andrew S. E. Erickson at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana said the State Department maintains its travel warning for Baja California Norte for a reason: continued security concerns.
"Tijuana has come a long way from 2009," Erikson said. "Look, we continue to have concerns about security. That's why we have a travel warning… There continues to be situations in which American citizens are killed. The majority of those murders seem to be related to transnational organized crime, narcoterrorism, or narcotics-related murders. As a general rule, however, people in tourist areas are not targeted."
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