Rhode Island receiving national scrutiny for ’embarrassment’ of a tourism campaign

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The controversy over Gov. Gina Raimondo’s new statewide tourism campaign continued Thursday, as a spokeswoman distanced her from a top aide after the affair made national news.

The story began Monday night when the R.I. Commerce Corporation unveiled a new logo and slogan, “Cooler & Warmer,” created by out-of-state marketing firms for roughly $550,000. The branding was quickly mocked on social media, and the criticism grew exponentially when it was discovered a related promotional video included footage of Iceland and a redesigned tourism website contained outdated, inaccurate information.

The screw-ups made Thursday’s front page of The Boston Globe, the largest newspaper in New England, and were mentioned on the Wednesday evening edition of Scott Pelley’s “CBS Evening News.”

“Rhode Island officials did not blame the error on providence – they blamed the editing company,” Pelley quipped.

The debacle has focused attention on Betsy Wall, who was hired in December as Rhode Island’s new chief marketing officer after leading Massachusetts’ tourism agency for eight years under former Gov. Deval Patrick, who left office last year.

Raimondo allies are privately alarmed by the political damage they think the tourism issue is doing to the governor. Asked Thursday if Raimondo continues to have confidence in Wall – who still lives in Massachusetts – spokeswoman Marie Aberger declined to say so.

“The errors were unacceptable – there needs to be accountability, and there will be,” Aberger told WISH-TV’s sister station WPRI. “We are evaluating next steps.”

“We’re focused on making this comprehensive, coordinated marketing effort as successful as possible, and it’s great the public is so passionate and engaged,” she said. “We are committed to taking feedback into account and to getting this right so we produce a campaign Rhode Islanders are proud of.”

David Bernstein, a former Massachusetts political reporter, noted that Wall and her husband were well-connected politically among Bay State Democrats. Wall previously served as a fundraising director for then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry. She also reportedly ran an off-budget “trust” for Governor Patrick that funded expenses such as travel, drawing scrutiny from lawmakers.

Jennifer Howard, a Commerce Corporation spokeswoman, defended Wall’s hiring on Thursday, saying she helped drive Massachusetts’ tourism revenue to a “record” $18.5 billion and also chaired Discover New England, the regional marketing group.

“The Commerce Corporation led an exhaustive, thorough process, which involved screening over 130 candidates, and many interviews, before selecting Betsy for the position,” Howard told WPRI.com. She said the job application was posted publicly from Sept. 4 to Dec. 21 last year.

Wall continued her own efforts at damage control Thursday in a new round of media interviews, but they got off to a rough start during a brutal exchange on WPRO’s morning program when Wall declined to say whether the state had decided to seek refunds from either the firm that made the Iceland video or the one that came up with “Cooler & Warmer.”

Wall also acknowledged she’d never heard of Gaspee Days, the annual June celebration of the burning of a British ship by Rhode Islanders during the Revolutionary War era. That touched a sore spot: U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, for one, often complains that the attack on the HMS Gaspee fails to receive as much attention as the Boston Tea Party, which took place 16 months later.

“I come to the floor to speak about the burning of the Gaspee every year because, as proud as I am of what those brave Rhode Islanders did in 1772, I’m also disappointed that their story has largely been lost to history outside our little state,” Whitehouse told the Senate last year. “I hope my speeches will help a new generation to learn about this important event.”

He added: “In Rhode Island, of course, we will never forget.”

In the interview, Wall emphasized that Rhode Island’s tourism director, Mark Brodeur, remains in his job and has a deep knowledge of the state. Brodeur has worked in the state’s tourism office since 1989.

In another Thursday morning interview, on WPRI 12’s The Rhode Show, Wall said the process that led to the “Cooler & Warmer” slogan “predates before I got here” but described it as the fruit of research. She also said the tourism campaign will be partly directed at Rhode Islanders, who account for 30% of leisure spending in their own state.

Wall said it would be “pretty lame” if the slogan was the “entirety” of the tourism campaign. “This is a way to capture in a very few words some of the aspects of Rhode Island that we think are very appealing,” she said.

“The warmth of course refers to the people, the traditions, the family feeling here, the history, the way that Rhode Islanders are so passionate about the place and so passionate about traditions and all that,” she said. “And then the cooler refers to the edgy, fun, inventive side.”

Documents released Wednesday show the Commerce Corporation has already spent almost half of its new $4.5 million tourism marketing budget for 2015-16, with $1 million of the money paid to its lead consultant, Havas PR North America, for “public relations and fees.” About $1.67 million of the budget has been allocated for expenses such as advertising buys.

Raimondo has requested another $5 million for the tourism and business marketing effort in her proposed budget for 2016-17, which lawmakers are currently reviewing. She and others have long argued Rhode Island needed to spend more money on a broad effort to market the state to travelers.

The Rhode Island Republican Party seized on the tourism mess to paint Raimondo as out of touch and too quick to criticize Rhode Islanders for negativity, as she did once again on Wednesday when asked about the slogan and the Iceland video.

“This branding campaign is an embarrassment,” GOP Chairman Brandon Bell said in a statement. “It needs to be scrapped immediately, high paid staff fired and expensive consultant contracts ended before the taxpayers see another dime wasted.”

He added: “In hindsight, Raimondo must now realize that she should have used the PR team that fooled Fortune magazine into listing her as one of the World’s Top 50 Greatest Leaders to promote Rhode Island rather than the crew she assembled that gave us Cooler and Warmer.”

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