"You bring in a lot of experts, qualified experts but it's amazing how many so-called experts turn out to not be qualified experts in the end of it," Malone said. "It was very frustrating with us having to deal with that and the perceptions that created, but we overcame them."
The Gulf Coast CVB found its greatest role was to be a communicator for tourists who were there during the spill, those planning to visit that summer and those who had larger events scheduled for the near future. A CVB's messaging must be clear and honest, Malone said.
"As a CVB in any city, we are more or less the messenger of the brand of our destination," Malone said. "The message inferred by us and implied to the consumer is that our destination is clean and safe. When it's not, we have to explain that and try to explain in terms that the average consumer can understand."
The CVB posted daily videos of beach conditions, which weren't always positive. There were some days when pools of oil on the shore featured prominently in their updates.
"We didn't hide from that," Malone said. "That laid the groundwork for earning their trust."
Malone said building customer trust is key in post-disaster marketing efforts.
"If you ever lose it, it's hard to get it back," Malone said. "In this day and time when everyone's got a camera in their pocket, you'd be foolish to do anything otherwise."
Perception is the first challenge an area can face when trying to recover and, eventually, move on from a disaster. Gulf Coast CVB approached changing perceptions of the area's environmental integrity in a variety of ways.
"[Consumers] remember the stories and images they saw on TV... a month ago," Malone said. "They don't have the images of the repaired building. Those images seldom make the media. They're not newsworthy."
Social media was Gulf Coast CVB's greatest tool in countering the idea that the Gulf was still heavily damaged by the spill, Malone said. Several large events were organized and regularly scheduled events went on as planned. The CVB encouraged visitors to post online photos and updates from each event, turning them into "ambassadors" for the region.
"Today's consumer tends to believe a fellow consumer more than they believe marketers," Malone said.
When things are settled and the disaster no longer affects the region, Malone said CVBs and government officials have to "stop talking about it." Take down disaster photos from websites; don't bring it up unless asked about it. Move on.
"If you don't do that, you run the risk of allowing this major event to define who you are long-term, and none of us want that," Malone said.
Bailey said social media is her "litmus test" for when fears about the impact of the chemical spill have subsided.
"When everybody starts talking about what they had for breakfast instead of their water," Bailey said, "that's when it will be time to make the next push to get people coming back to Charleston."
Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.mole...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.