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Safe And Sound: Inside Mexico’s Fight To Reclaim Its Global Reputation

Arun Sudhaman  03 Aug 2012

The “ostrich effect”

In May of this year, 18 headless corpses were found dumped in the Mexican city of Guadalajara, victims of the country’s horrific drug violence. That episode followed numerous others that have generated sensational international headlines and contributed to some grim statistics: since 2006, 47,500 people have died in drug-related violence in the country.

Two years ago, this kind of story would have met with a typical governmental response, one that current Mexican Tourism Secretary Gloria Guevara describes as the “ostrich effect”. Silence reigned and stories about Mexico were rarely rebutted, even as CNN ran more than 50 pieces on the country’s drug wars. 

At that stage, tourism, which accounts for almost one-tenth of Mexico’s GDP, was flatlining. After the swine flu crisis and years of economic turmoil, global perceptions of the country were similarly uninspiring. In 2010, Mexico ranked 31st out of 50 countries on the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index. 

In 2012, however, the Guadalajara story saw a well-rehearsed media response from national and local authorities swing rapidly into action, once news of the atrocity began to filter through.

The message was one that has been spread far and wide over the past 18 months, that Mexico remains safe for tourists, that its overall murder rate pales in comparison to other countries, and that the vast majority of the violence takes places many hundreds of miles away from popular vacation destinations.

It is an approach that has been deployed extensively, one that has helped bring a level of context to the international media's coverage of gruesome episodes like this and others in the country's ongoing drug wars. 

Today, furthermore, it is not uncommon to find stories like this one on the BBC, where David Shirk, an academic who specializes in Mexican politics and trans-border issues, calls on people to rethink an overly negative view towards the country. 

More importantly, it is not just media coverage that has improved. In 2011, the country experienced a significant tourism revival, attracting more visitors than ever before. In 2012, it is on course to set a new record in tourists from the US, the key source of visitors to the country.

As Kimberly Clark Mexico chairman Claudio Gonzalez describes it to the Holmes Report, it has been a “very necessary effort.”

To better understand Mexico’s attempts to reclaim its global reputation, the Holmes Report recently travelled to the nation’s capital city. The country may not be known as a hotbed of public relations innovation, but the lessons from Mexico’s public relations programme are ones that should be heeded by any government, or indeed organisation, facing its own issues or crises. Particularly if, as in the case of Mexico’s tourism marketers, they have little control over the crisis that befalls it.

The private sector arrivals

Sectur, Mexico’s tourism ministry, is housed in an office building notable only for its lack of grandeur. Yet Gloria Guevara is not your average government bureaucrat. A 44-year-old graduate of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Guevara took charge as tourism secretary at the start of 2010, after two decades working in the private sector. A lengthy conversation with President Felipe Calderon convinced Guevara that she could help Mexico recover from its 2009 tourism nadir, despite the daunting challenges.

“We didn’t have a clear strategy,” Guevara told the Holmes Report. “We changed. We had the choice of having someone saying what they believe about Mexico or we had the option of being proactive and communicating our side of the story.”

It is easy to frame crisis management lessons as a series of textbook responses to events real or imagined, but that often ignores a human dimension that can just as important for their success. Crucially, Guevara was also handed oversight of the Mexican Tourism Board (MTB), which oversees the country’s tourism marketing efforts, marking the first alliance between Mexico’s key federal tourist bodies. 

This also meant that she was joined in her task by two key figures. A no-nonsense entertainment and hospitality industry veteran, Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete arrived to become COO of the MTB. Later that year, the same organization hired Gerardo Llanes as CMO, an FMCG marketing specialist who had previously worked at Coca-Cola and Kellogg, and spent several years agency-side.

It was this combination of private sector veterans, as much as any PR theory, that helped usher in the revival in Mexico’s reputation as a tourist destination.

“In the private sector you’re not afraid to make decisions,” says Guevara. “You don’t think about the political cost. And I was making decisions, some controversial.”

Reset the dialogue

The most controversial of these was the commitment to start addressing the widespread criticism of Mexico’s safety record. Though it seems elementary, it remains rare for governments to address perception issues head on; countries like Egypt, Israel and Colombia are all examples of countries that have opted for a low-profile approach.

“One of the reasons we had such a deep problem from the point of view of perception is that for a long time we left a void in the market - we didn’t respond,” says Lopez-Negrete. “Incidents would happen, they were disseminated and there was no response from the Mexican government, or it was very slow or not accurate.”

Soft-spoken and, in his own words, “relentless”, Lopez-Negrete is holding court in an airy office at the MTB’s nondescript headquarters across town from Sectur. I had earlier been advised that the Mazatlan native had effectively acted as the emotional fulcrum for Mexico’s efforts to change perceptions.

“We were recommended against this approach by many people,” adds Lopez-Negrete. “We knew it was a gutsy decision. We also knew it was a much greater risk to sit on it and wait for the issue to disappear.”

Helping to define this approach was Ogilvy PR, which had already been providing reputation counsel to the Mexican government. Ogilvy won Mexico’s global tourism PR business at the beginning of 2011, and immediately set to work on what EVP and account lead Jennifer Risi calls a “major image problem.”

“We needed a certain level of accountability,” says Risi. “Historically in governments, there’s no action. We ran it like a publicly-held, privately-owned company, because we had benchmarks. Secretary Guevara wanted Mexico to be a top five tourist destination by 2018.”

That was a lofty goal. The more pressing concern was turning the tide of coverage without alienating prospective tourists. Risk communications specialist Peter Sandman notes that, in this case, there was plenty to lose by opting to acknowledge and discuss the violence.

“The benefit of reassuring concerned tourists might be outweighed by the collateral damage done by informing, reminding, and alarming unconcerned tourists,” says Sandman. “Thus it is quite possible that any outrage management campaign implemented by Mexican tourism officials could do more harm than good.”

Lopez-Negrete admits that the situation presented a “double-edged sword”, but is clear that a bigger risk was “standing still.” That was the recommendation that Sectur and the MTB took to Calderon. “

The key, he says, was ensuring that any communication was rooted firmly in facts. “Mexico was ducking and was not really telling the other side of the story.”

Ascertaining these facts is the core component of any crisis comms strategy. Where Mexico’s drug war is concerned, that is easier said than done. In a recent New Yorker article, William Finnegan describes the widespread scepticism that often marks Mexican attitudes towards the official version of events. The international media is hardly likely to be any more trusting.

“It’s a challenge,” admits Lopez-Negrete. “You have to gather the facts and make sure they are reliable. But you can.” 

Sitting at a federal level, as Sectur and MTB do, only complicated matters further.  “You have to find the local authorities who really have the will to tackle the issue, and in parallel inform us so we can align the comms and inform the media,” said Lopez-Negrete.

That approach highlighted one of the most complex aspects of the campaign. Much of the frontline communication after specific episodes of violence was handled by state-level bodies, calling for what Lopez-Negrete describes as a “gigantic effort” in terms of education, training and preparation.

“Say a negative event occurs in Acapulco - the local authorities have to come out and face the media,” explains Lopez-Negrete. “It’s basically pretty much textbook, but in Mexico this hasn’t happened automatically.”

700 interviews and counting

Counselled by Risi and her team at Ogilvy PR, Guevara and Lopez-Negrete soon embarked on a media effort of Herculean proportions, conducting over 700 interviews over the past 18 months, most of them centred on the US and Canada. 

The campaign, which all of the protagonists describe as “aggressive”, focused on three groups of stakeholders. First, the corporate world, including US and multinational companies conducting business in Mexico’s booming economy. Second, celebrities, in recognition of their unique ability to propel word-of-mouth advocacy. And, third, consumers and the all-important travel trade.

The approach was not without difficulties. Guevara, impatient for change, soon recognised that an information gap of two years would not be remedied in a couple of months. More troublesome, perhaps, was the dawning realisation that many media required a considerable amount of education.

“We never talk about the US,” says Guevara of violence in other countries. “We speak about, specifically, where does it happen - like Aurora, Colorado - and we know the geography. The challenge that I had was with some of the people, the fact they had no knowledge of our geography.”

Guevara is careful to say that she does not believe a double standard is at work in terms of media coverage of Mexico. “It’s a lack of knowledge,” she offers. “The US is the largest economy in the world. It’s not that I had the expectation they were very familiar with Mexican geography.”

Yet, the uncomfortable truth is that violence in different countries can be reported in very different ways. At the beginning of this year, a female Canadian tourist was attacked in the city Mazatlan. Guevara and Lopez-Negrete visited Canada soon afterwards, taking with them the attorney-general of Sinaloa province, and have since directed a considerable amount of attention towards assuaging Canadian concerns regarding tourist safety.

“I cannot deny I have been annoyed,” admits Lopez-Negrete. “But we have been relentless. Obviously we understand the media, we understand that negative news sells. What we continue to say is - let’s reset this dialogue. 23 million international tourists cannot be wrong.”

The international media strategy was complemented by a domestic effort overseen by Alberto Petrearse and Yadira Lopez, communications directors at Sectur and MTB, respectively. “Our main goal was to put into context the importance of tourism as an economic activity, and create an interaction with the reporters,” says Petrearse, who was supported by Cohn & Wolfe Mexico. “That helped us create a lot of interest in the sector.”

Taxicab confessions

At the same time, Llanes had conceived and launched a marketing campaign that attempted to showcase a different side of Mexico, using the tagline “the Mexico you thought you knew.” Instead of beaches and mariachi bands, Llanes chose to focus attention on areas such as food, culture and adventure sports, in a bid to expand a one-dimensional view of the country.

Sensible enough, but Llanes was aware that a glitzy ad campaign was not about to reassure potential visitors of Mexico’s safety. An FMCG veteran, Llanes wanted a tactical effort that addressed these concerns, and found it in an initiative which used a fake taxi driver at US airports, asking returned visitors for their candid opinions of the country.

The ‘Taxi Project’ filmed these interviews and eventually produced 20 videos that featured uniformly positive views of Mexico. Llanes is insistent that negative comments were not edited out, noting that around 95 percent of Mexico’s visitors recommend the country to friends and family.

“We have stats that show most people that come to Mexico, come back,” he says, noting that this mitigated any risk associated with the project. “If most people leave happy, the risk is minimum. And if something happens, we want the truth to come out.”

Based at the MTB, Llanes has become a visible face of Mexican tourism, tapping into his experience of working abroad. Under his stewardship, the MTB has doubled its digital marketing investment and, for the first time, implemented a cohesive social media strategy, using initiatives like the Taxi Project to generate content.

Llanes is backed by a $130m marketing budget, presumably making his task a little easier. There has been considerable change, however, in how that budget is apportioned. Public relations, for example, now accounts for around $50m, up five-fold from 2010. 

“The MTB is a monumental marketing machine,” says Lopez-Negrete. “This kind of exercise is very costly - it requires that you go to the markets on a constant basis and travel around the world spreading the message. We are convinced if we had not done that we would never have been able to grow international business from other markets.”

The diversification of its tourism base was another important component of the marketing effort, in recognition of Mexico’s existing reliance on the US and Canada. Developing specific campaigns for different markets has seen the MTB significantly improve visitor numbers from countries such as Russia, Brazil, China and Colombia.

New best friends

By building its programme around word-of-mouth testimonials from travellers and celebrities, and aggressive engagement with reporters, Mexico’s tourism authorities helped to pacify much of the consumer concern. The tone of coverage has changed markedly, borne out by media analysis that shows much more neutrality than negativity.

“Slowly but surely we started to revert the trend,” claims Lopez-Negrete. “The tone of the interviews is now totally different.”

The media programme, however, still not did not counter the problem of national travel alerts, such as those issued by the State Department, which, says Lopez-Negrete, were “killing us”. This called for a more specific lobbying effort of US Embassy and State Department officials, resulting in the travel alert issued earlier this year. It is remarkably specific in its description of Mexico’s safety picture, and must serve as an example to other countries that chafe against the vague, blanket judgments that often characterise these alerts.

For Guevara, the results are vindication of a strategy that has, so far, paid off and silenced some doubters. “A lot of people told me that the media can be your worst enemy,” she explains. “I believe it’s the other way. When you are proactive and communicate with facts, they actually can be your best friend.”

From a starting point of “events and cocktail parties”, meanwhile, the very perception of public relations has also shifted. “We were being perceived one way and the reality was a different way,” says Lopez-Negrete. “We had to narrow the gap, and PR has been probably the most important tool to achieve that. Sometimes people preach PR cannot be quantified or measured - but we have been able to measure it.” 

Unsurprisingly, Mexico’s tourism revival has attracted the attention of other nations. “It sounds so basic, but it’s unbelievable the number of countries that are not aligned internally,” states Guevara, pointing to the elusive unity that Sectur and MTB were able to forge. 

Llanes adds that other countries could be “bolder” in their tourism marketing and thinks they must understand travellers as consumers, “with the same motivations and emotions.”

He also admits that tourism is just one factor in Mexico’s overall brand. In 2010, nation branding expert Simon Anholt wrote a report that said Mexico had "an already weak and in some cases badly flawed reputation", adding that a low sense of self-esteem had resulted from 300 years spent in the US’ shadow. To solve these problems, said Anholt, the country needed to find “new, imaginative and effective ways of tackling the drugs problem.”

That much, of course, could not be accomplished by the country’s tourist authorities. Yet it serves to underline how little influence they have over the core issues that still bedevil Mexico’s global reputation. Llanes believes that tourism has become the “voice of Mexico”, but it is likely that tourism alone will not be enough. 

An uncertain future

Despite the encouraging results, the ending to this story is still unclear. Mexico has just voted for a change of government, and there is little to suggest that President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto will retain the same people to head his tourism strategy, when he assumes power on 1 December.

At most risk must be Guevara, as a high-profile Calderon hire. She seems unconcerned, revealing that she expects to return to the private sector. “I’m not worried. The hardest work has been completed.”

Given their private sector backgrounds, the three principals appear to share an realistic attitude towards job security. “Traditionally, when there is a change of government, they change the key positions,” says Lopez-Negrete.  

Of more concern is this: Will Mexico’s tourism strategy survive the departures of its key leaders? All three point to the broad backing the initiative has received from the private sector, investors, tour operators, business partners and federal and state government.

“I think any government coming in is going to continue with the Sectur effort,” says Gonzalez, who believes that Mexico still faces a global reputation challenge of considerable proportions. “They may change or tweak it. But the effort to keep on treating the perception of Mexico, internally and externally has to continue.”

“This is not a strategy that MTB is doing on an isolated basis,” says Lopez-Negrete. “I believe that is one the best guarantees you have for continuity of this strategy. I believe that the incoming administration will continue in the same direction because it has worked. This issue of perception against reality is not going to disappear because it’s a work in progress.”

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