Atlantic City has an image problem, those charged with marketing the resort have long said, citing public perceptions that the resort is past its prime and filled with nothing but casino entertainment.
But that could be changing, according to a new report by a public relations firm charged with studying Atlantic City’s image in the national media. Based on an analysis of hundreds of stories over nine months, experts say there has been a spike in the number of positive stories about Atlantic City, starting with eight in January and rising to 341 in September.
The report also shows that the number of negative stories about Atlantic City has decreased from 152 in the first quarter of the year to 101 in the third quarter.
Experts analyzed 1,500 stories that appeared in Atlantic City’s key feeder markets of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to make their determinations.
“When you have bad perceptions out there, no amount of advertising can combat that stuff,” said Katie Paine, CEO of public relations firm Paine Publishing. “It’s the actions proving that there’s activity that matters, and that’s what’s documented in the media. You could buy a gazillion dollars of advertising saying Atlantic City is back, and no one is going to believe you until they read it somewhere else.”
The Atlantic City Alliance, a casino-funded marketing group, was created in 2011 through the same legislation that brought about Atlantic City’s Tourism District. Faced with perceptions that Atlantic City was failing, legislation dictated the alliance would be charged with creating a $30 million-a-year marketing campaign encouraging new visitors to come to the city.
What followed was a “Do AC” marketing blitz launched across the Northeast via television commercials, billboards, radio and print advertisements. The alliance has also sponsored art installations throughout the city and weekend activities ranging from sandsculpting contests to wine tastings on the Boardwalk.
To test the effectiveness of its efforts, the alliance contracted with media analysis firm Salience Insight to conduct the study. The firm tracked 13,000 newspaper, radio, television and online stories about Atlantic City. Of that total, 1,500 stories appeared in markets from which the alliance hopes to pull visitors to Atlantic City.
The alliance said the analysis shows it’s had success in pushing the message about the Boardwalk and Atlantic City making a comeback and the city offering more than just gambling.
Still, challenges remain. Some messages the group is pushing have not been successful.
Most negative messaging centers on ideas that the city is not clean and safe, is not a good place for business and has a casino industry struggling with declining gambling revenue. Casino gambling revenue reached a high of $5.2 billion in 2006 and will likely come in at less than $3 billion this year.
Some say that regardless of the alliance’s campaign, Atlantic City has major gaps to fill.
Wayne Schaffel, a public relations consultant and former Atlantic City casino executive, recently noted in a monthly breakdown of Atlantic City’s activities that he believes some messages that are pushed in the public light are overestimated. United Airlines recently announced it would add flights from Atlantic City International Airport to Chicago and Houston in April. The story has seen significant media attention, but Schaffel said the flights will be on relatively small 50-seat aircrafts each day.
“The buzz you will create will make up for the lack of facts or reality,” Schaffel said.
Teams dissected the stories that appeared in Atlantic City’s feeder markets looking for key words and phrases that push messages the alliance is trying to promote. Stories were given a score based on how flattering they were to Atlantic City. The stories were divided into four categories: positive, neutral, balanced and negative.
Neutral stories generally mention Atlantic City but stop short of exploring anything positive or negative about the city. Balanced stories include an equal amount of positive and negative information, Paine said.
Both the alliance and Paine noted that the spikes are usually related to events that draw increased coverage. Positive stories jumped to 303 in May when Margaritaville opened at Resorts Casino Hotel. Positive stories dipped to 97 in August, then jumped up again in September with the return of the Miss America Competition. Neutral stories also jumped at that time, from 102 in August to 359 in September, as a number of stories about Miss America mentioned that the competition took place in Atlantic City but made no other mention of the city.
“What’s important is not just mentions of Atlantic City. You don’t need that. You need mentions that push important messages and leave people with the feeling that they want to come to Atlantic City,” Paine said.
Melanie Sole, a public relations representative with the alliance, said Miss America and its related parade had the greatest effect in pushing the message that Atlantic City’s Boardwalk survived Hurricane Sandy without issue, as a number of stories featured images and descriptions of the walkway.
In the past, the effectiveness of media outreach has been measured in different ways. In some cases, agencies began assigning dollar amounts to stories and declaring that an event equated to a dollar amount that would have been spent in advertising.
“Media evaluation index scores are a better way to measure public relations results because they take into account the quality and quantity of coverage, including messages, tone, quotes and images about the client,” said Angela Jeffrey, managing director of Salience Insight. “Corporations and nonprofits in all sectors ranging from tourism to defense to technology and packaged goods have adopted the same types of sophisticated media measure matrices that the ACA is using.”
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