‘Cooler & Warmer’ PR firm’s chief: ‘I am bruised’

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The lead PR firm hired to manage Rhode Island’s $5-million tourism marketing campaign is licking its wounds after a string of early embarrassments, and says it’s lowered how much it’s charging the state by a quarter-million dollars.

“I am bruised; we are bruised, but more than anything the whole team remains committed to the state,” Havas PR North America CEO Marian Salzman told WPRI.com in an email, offering her first public comments about the mess since Gov. Gina Raimondo announced she was abandoning the slogan “Cooler & Warmer” and getting $100,000 back from New York-based Havas.

“Like everyone involved, we are humbled by the negative reactions to the brand launch and have pledged to listen more closely to voices within the state and beyond,” Salzman said.

The $100,000 refund isn’t the first time Havas has “voluntarily” agreed to reduce how much money it’s getting from the state, according to Salzman. The company previously agreed to cut its fee by $150,000 on Feb. 23, she said.

“We made both gestures because we believe completely in this state’s amazing assets and in the people of Rhode Island,” she said.

Havas offered the $150,000 cut after the state’s then-chief marketing officer, Betsy Wall, decided she “wanted to tweak the strategy from earned media to a blend of earned and paid,” Salzman said. Wall resigned following the public backlash over the campaign rollout.

“This re-costing was my suggestion, no one asked me to make this decision or the corresponding recommendation to spend media money in the state, focused on the percentage of our tourists who come from within Rhode Island,” Salzman said. “We hope this paid plan becomes real in the next few weeks.”

The additional $150,000 will allow the state to buy more advertising time in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, according to Havas. Salzman added that the company “did not curtail any service because we cut our monthly charge.”

Prior to Raimondo’s refund announcement, Havas was slated to receive $3.5 million of the $5 million budgeted this fiscal year for Rhode Island’s new tourism campaign, including $1.83 million billed for “public relations and fees.”

Raimondo’s office and the R.I. Commerce Corporation declined to comment, directing questions about the tourism campaign’s budget to Salzman.

Salzman tried to find a silver lining in the botched rollout, which made national headlines. “The launch of this brand campaign had broad reach, which shows just how much people care about Rhode Island – and it has provided a jumping-off point for increased engagement and brand advocacy,” she said.

She also pushed back at critics of the Raimondo administration’s decision to hire out-of-state firms to work on the campaign. (Milton Glaser, the designer who led the creation of “Cooler & Warmer,” is also a New Yorker. A third firm, Seth Goldenberg’s Epic Decade, is based locally and is taking on a larger role following Wall’s departure.)

“While I don’t claim to be a Rhode Islander, I have a great many connections to this state,” Salzman said. She noted that Havas began in Providence in 1976 as Creamer Dickson Basford and she herself attended Brown University, and said Havas reopened its local office in 2013, well before it received the state contract.

“This is one of the places I have called home, and I am committed to getting it right,” she said.

“Placing and amplifying stories is what we do,” she added. “And we plan to promote this destination to all the nearcationers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and beyond.”

The House Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing Wednesday to take up the Commerce Corporation’s 2016-17 budget proposal, including its request for an additional $5 million to continue funding the tourism campaign.Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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