LONDON, April 23—There’s not much even the best public relations agency can do about the impact of foot-and-mouth disease on British agriculture, but its impact on tourism to the United Kingdom is another matter. At least, that’s what the British Tourist Authority is hoping, as it taps GCI Group to handle a major PR offensive in 10 countries, aimed at dispelling some of the worst misconceptions created by coverage of the slaughter of sheep and cows in the British countryside.
The BTA’s website (http://www.open.visitbritain.com) contains a section dedicated to foot-and-mouth disease, which emphasizes that the disease is not a risk to human health, that visits to the British countryside “are not banned” and that there is still plenty to see and do in Britain. But the public does not appear to be getting the message, with cancellations from the U.S. running at about 20 percent, according to travel agents.
“The media coverage is ridiculously out of control,” says Adrian Wheeler, chairman of GCI Europe. “The picture that is being presented, even in relatively mature media markets like the U.S., is several orders of magnitude worse than the reality. It’s given people a completely erroneous impression of what it’s like here, and we will be working with the public relations department at the BTA to try to correct that impression.”
About half of the agency’s work will involve monitoring the media coverage of foot-and-mouth disease and responding to inaccuracies, while the remainder of the program will involve more proactive efforts to reach out to opinion leaders and enlisting their support, Wheeler says. “The British Tourist Authority has several programs designed to promote the attractions of Britain, but the images that have resulted from foot-and-mouth are obviously very compelling to journalists, and their coverage of the disease doesn’t leave much room for more rational stories.”
GCI beat out other finalists—believed to include Hill & Knowlton and Weber Shandwick Worldwide—for the account, which is thought to be worth in the high six figures. It will represent the BTA in major markets including the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, France, and the Benelux countries. The account will be led by Rhodri Harris of the London office, who specializes in government programs.
GCI’s credentials include work in more than 20 countries for British Airways, handling a wide variety of tourism issues, and considerable experience working with British government agencies.