By Val Robichaud
With a crew coming in from L.A. the next day to shoot a commercial, Jonny Westom, the executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, who also had details of the Plaza Lighting Ceremony to deal with, it was going to be a very busy week.
He had no idea.
Early that fateful Monday morning, at about 3:30 a.m., the phone began to ring. The fires were raging, and the rumors and misinformation were flying. He was hearing all kind of things. A Valley winery burned down; ready to offer condolences to the owner, also bureau boardmember, he was told, “no, we’re safe.”
Cleary, crisis communication was to become key over the next several days. Framing the response, marshalling resources, coordinating the effort to combat rumors and get the actual news out. Social media, Westom said, was a blessing and a curse. There was valuable real-time info being generated, but also much that was incorrect.
There was a lot at stake to get things right. Nearly two-thirds of Sonoma’s general fund revenue is linked, directly and indirectly, to tourism, he said. “This is not tourism issue. This is a wine country issue.”
Westom put staff to work addressing false perceptions; the public relations team took on the task of correcting inaccurate media stories. The commercial shoot was postponed and a new, more relevant campaign devised. The online and social media strategy was expanded to include new website options, resource links and hashtags.
The bureau also worked its San Francisco connections to offer big-discount deals to evacuees who needed emergency shelter. Some 800 people were placed, many with pets.
As for post-fire marketing, “Nothing we had planned is the same.” A new commercial was written and produced, and is already on the air. The campaign features local business owners inviting people to visit. Each is a homey, personal vignette. The idea is to humanize the industry. “It’s emotional. Someone is still there.”
One challenge of the TV and new print campaigns is to assuage any guilt or unease a visitor might have about interrupting a community in recovery. “The message is, ‘we’re here, we’re open, and we’re ready to welcome you back.’”
Westom has heard about people who visited after the fires specifically to patronize local businesses. “They came with the idea of helping.” It’s a good sign. What’s next? “Long-term, we want to build on the unity, and continue to deliver economic impact.”
Westom, who came from a similar position in Palm Springs, has been on the job just over two years. “I love Sonoma,” he said. He’s proud of some earlier milestones, like forging new industry partnerships and expanding marketing campaigns, and in April he was named by the North Bay Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 list of remarkable young professionals. But this past month may top the list. “It’s heartwarming to see the community coming together.”