Posted At: February 6, 2013 5:45 P.M.
by Haley Clemons
Waking up to quaint communities, sun-drenched landscapes and delicious local fare sounds like a dream. This is a place where time slows down, and the only item on the agenda for many visitors is sipping a drink from the town beach bar. For some PR pros, promoting this vacation experience is a reality.
Highway 30A, a vacation destination in Northwest Florida, prides itself on being the spot where “life shines.” Praised by publications such as Southern Living, Travel and Leisure and The New York Times, one might wonder what this tourist destination is doing to gain such exposure. Mike Ragsdale, founder of 30a.com, has independently created a thriving brand and helps promote the area surrounding this famous highway.
Describing himself as a “hyperlocal publisher,” Ragsdale is both passionate about and devoted to the scenic stretch of highway between Panama City Beach and Sandestin. “Hyperlocal publishing is an evolving field,” said Ragsdale. “Right now we are hearing a lot about it in the industry.”
According to Donna Shaw, contributing writer for the American Journalism Review, “a hyperlocal news site (also known as local-local or microsite) is devoted to the stories and minutiae of a particular neighborhood, ZIP code or interest group within a certain geographic area.” 30A falls into this description. The site offers content about events, restaurants, shop openings, real estate and community news for locals and tourists to enjoy.
Ragsdale is not the only PR professional in the area who has a love for all 30A has to offer. Lori Leath Smith, director of public relations and marketing for Seaside Community Development Corp., promotes one of the beach communities along the highway. From accommodating Ralph Lauren for a photo shoot to sending press releases to travel publications, Smith’s weeks are all about promoting the splendor of Seaside, Fla.
The PR pros of 30A and its communities offer the following advice for anyone interested in promoting a travel or tourism client.
As with any type of public relations, extensive research about the client is crucial. Ragsdale attributes much of his success to his love for 30A and his desire to help others learn about the area.
“It’s like what Mark Twain said—‘write what you know,’” Ragsdale explained. “Authenticity is important for a person to have when they want to do something like this. They have to know what they are talking about.”
Smith equally believes in the power of authenticity and passion. “Put your passion to work for you. If you care about it, it’s not going to be hard to promote. The sincerity in what you are doing comes out,” she said.
Additionally, understanding the “feeling” attached to the highway, or the communities along it, is an integral part of successfully getting messages across.
“30A, by design, is becoming less and less about a place and more about an attitude,” Ragsdale said. “It’s not just about what is going on here; it’s about communicating a feeling you get when you are here.” Ragsdale hopes to leave the public with a lasting impression that stays with them long after they leave 30A.
Hand in hand with authenticity, Smith stresses finding out what makes the area you plan to represent special. When asked to explain what makes Seaside, Fla., such an attractive community, Smith said, “There is something to do for any age group and all roads lead to the beach. The community was designed for walking and promotes talking to people.”
In a town where every cottage has a front porch and neighbors chitchat on their way to the ice cream parlor, the beauty of the area is in its simplicity. This comforting key message is what keeps people coming to Seaside again and again. For this very reason, Seaside was recently named the number one beach for families on earth by Travel and Leisure magazine.
Ragsdale agreed that the area is unique, noting “30A is about those memories you have as a child when there just wasn’t a lot to do other than go outside or ride your bike. It’s still very much that way today. I think that’s what makes it so special.”
As a travel communicator, the goal may not always be to increase the number of incoming vacationers, but keeping the destination in the people’s minds even when they are back in their stuffy cubicles. When it comes to remaining in the public eye, Ragsdale has it covered. “I want to be in their minds all year,” said Ragsdale, “not just the two weeks they get for vacation.”
All it took was a sticker with the famous 30A logo to create a thriving brand. The 30A website now offers a variety of items for purchase, including an iPhone app that helps generate exposure for the highway and remind customers of that “beach-life” feeling all year.
Smith also works to keep people daydreaming of Seaside. “We are continually updating our Facebook page. Some days, I’ll just go out and take a picture and say, ‘It’s January and 70 degrees, don’t you wish you could be at Seaside?’ Through Facebook, we can interact with our fans.” Smith also funnels information to different media outlets, including 30a.com, about events and news that are ongoing in Seaside.
“A long time ago, I decided not to put any negative news on the website. You can read the newspaper for bad news. I wanted people to come to my site and feel good,” said Ragsdale. He noted that ”the challenge isn’t coming up with content; the challenge is that I have many people each day sending me content. I have got to figure out which content to promote.”
30a.com currently has more than 160,000 fans and followers through its social networking sites. Content includes scenic photos, contest giveaways and exciting news from the area, all supporting the key message that 30A is where you go to feel good about life.
Communication, especially in the world of social media, is unpredictable. “We have more than 20,000 people who like us on Facebook,” said Smith. “There are bound to be some negative comments. We always answer and address those comments.”
Dr. William Gonzenbach, a professor of public relations at The University of Alabama, commented on the importance of content within travel and tourism PR. “Other similar publications have the same policy,” he said. “Telling negative news is not their job. When selling travel, food or something similar, it’s not about the negative. You go to a destination to get away from all that.”
When promoting an area, it is also important to develop relationships with publications and media outlets that can help promote it. “If you have a specific audience you want to address, peruse through different publications and discover who their target public is,” Smith explained. “Make those relationships with the media and learn what they need and what you can do for them.”
PR is an ever-changing field and requires those who practice it to master older principles and quickly learn new ones.
“As a student, try to become knowledgeable about things in the industry that will cross over,” Smith said. “Know the fundamentals of PR and once you have that mastered, you can add the trends and the tools to reach the target audience you are trying to reach.”
Smith not only practices PR, but she also works with graphic design and photography. She concluded that both of these skills help her to be a better professional communicator.
Ragsdale, a graduate of The University of Alabama, earned a B.A. in Communication and an M.A. in Advertising and PR. He urges current students to take every opportunity handed to them.
“The good news for anyone coming out of the program is that their skills will be useful no matter what they decide to pursue,” he said. “At the end of the day, communication is something that is needed and a respected asset for any profession. Communication literally spans everything.”
Ragsdale was once a student and employee of Dr. Gonzenbach and remembers the opportunities he received as a student fondly.
“It’s about being inquisitive and doing background work for something that you are interested in,” Gonzenbach said. “If there is an area that you really like, learn everything there is to know about it. Get out there and get your toes in the sand.”
Literally and figuratively, that is exactly what these PR pros did.