After two British tourists were gunned down in Newtown two weeks ago, some British tabloids began spreading misinformation through unsubstantiated theories.
As a town that makes its living through tourism, bad press is bad news for Sarasota.
Community leaders had to weigh whether to fight back or let the story cycle just run its course.
“The basic tenet of crisis management is don’t fan the flames with strong denials,” said Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Not long after James Cooper and James Kouzaris were fatally shot, the British press descended on Sarasota to report on the crimes.
Sensationalism took over in the tabloids, with characterizations of Sarasota as a “gangland.”
At last week’s City Commission meeting, Mayor Kelly Kirschner asked the city’s public information officer, Jan Thornburg, and community leaders to fight some of the misinformation.
Thornburg said she had received several phone calls about theories with no attribution from the Sarasota Police Department or any other official agency.
“They just make things up,” she said.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau has been closely monitoring all news accounts and will correct false information when it is published, such as when one paper that reported the crime happened in broad daylight at 3 p.m., instead of 3 a.m.
“We are correcting any errors,” Haley said.
Haley has also contacted the British tourism board and offered Florida experts for media outlets to interview to get across the point that this type of crime against tourists is extremely rare.
The SCVB has also invited several British journalists to visit Sarasota within the next two weeks to see the community, and it is negotiating with a British radio show to broadcast from Sarasota.
The major question, however, is what kind of impact has all this news had on tourism.
So far, the answer is, according to Haley, none.
“We have checked with major tour operators,” she said. “They’ve received not one phone call with questions, and there has been not a single cancellation.”
Local hotel operators also reported no cancelled reservations as a result of the shooting.
“We frequently have British guests,” said Prudie Varro, manager of Sunsets on the Key. “We’ve had no cancellations.”
In fact, some British tourists, who frequently visit Sarasota, have rushed to the city’s defense, emailing the city to offer its support and let leaders know that they realize that Sarasota is a safe place to visit.
“I have never felt threatened on any of my visits,” wrote Bill Hurst. “We are looking forward to spending more time in beautiful Siesta Key with the friendly people and wonderful climate.”
“The stories (in the British press) are already moving toward the back of the papers,” said Haley.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected]