El Paso has taken a beating over the cartel war in Juárez, and now the city wants to mount a new publicity campaign to improve its reputation.
Last month, the city posted a request for proposals for a "comprehensive image and reputation management plan," which was the result of efforts by the 30-member Image Task Force.
Even though the RFP never uses the word "violence," it does refer to the "the negative focus given to the issues plaguing Ciudad Juárez." That's affecting the region's ability to recruit talent, attract visitors and causes anxiety, the RFP states.
No proposals had come by last week, so with this Wednesday's deadline approaching, the city extended it to Dec. 7.
One problem could be that there's no budget in the RFP, so no one knows whether the city and its partners want to spend $25,000 or $250,000 on the campaign.
"They've written the RFP pretty well," said Joe Lopez, founder and head of El Paso's Lopez Advertising Group. "We've looked it and looked it, but were still not sure because we don't know the size of the contract."
"It they had put a range on it, it would have helped."
Other ad agencies said the same thing.
Leila Melendez, the executive assistant to city manager Joyce Wilson, said that's because no one with the city or Image Task Force behind the plan really knows what it will take to do the job.
"As part of the plan itself, we want them to say, because they are the experts, this is how much we think you need to invest if you want to change the image," Melendez said. "We don't want to tell them what to spend and how to spend it."
There's no question, Lopez said, that El Paso has some work to do when it comes to convincing travelers, tourists and businesses that the city is still a safe place with lots to do.
"People will see stuff on TV and they'll call me and say, ‘Are you OK?'" Lopez said. "I have to tell them, ‘Of course I'm OK. This is a safe city.'"
He was hoping the city would amend the request by adding a ballpark figure for the budget and extending the deadline. He got half his wish.
Bad impressions about a place are easy to create and hard to dispel, so it's going to take money and time to change opinions, he said.
"What needs to happen is a re-education campaign, not branding," Lopez said. "We need to give people the bottom line, here are the facts: El Paso is not No. 1 in safety for no reason, and then back it up."
Wilson, in an e-mail response, offered additional information about the plan and the task force behind it.
"It is an outgrowth of the Strategic Communications Task Force, and we are merely handling the RFP on behalf of CVB, which is leading the effort along with various community stakeholders," Wilson said. "It is supposed to be an effort to develop some strategic messaging that everyone would use as part of their various marketing and outreach efforts, so we would have a more unified theme."
She said she's always thought the city needed a broader and more sophisticated public relations program that is on par with other cities' efforts.
"But the City Council has been divided, so we stepped back and allowed this community group to take more of a leadership role," Wilson said.
The task force is made up of officials and representatives from some of El Paso's major institutions, including Fort Bliss, the chambers of commerce, the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas Tech University, the Paso Del Norte Group, El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp., law enforcement and media outlets.
Its first recommendation urges the city keep the task force members engaged in the development, launch and implementation of the plan.
The second recommendation calls for a survey of the business community to assess the "important attributes of the region from a business perspective, such as why companies choose to locate in El Paso and why others stay in El Paso."
The third recommendation is to work more with travel writers "with the aim of providing a positive, organic experience in their visits to El Paso and to strengthen relations with publications in the El Paso area ‘to expose the nontraditional, off-the-beaten path activity.'"
And the final one was to issue the RFP for an image and reputation management plan for the city.
"The plan is meant to generate opportunities for the city of El Paso to create a sense of community pride and capture positive media attention and to build a base for which to grow a national campaign," the RFP reads.
One small ad agency that has attracted attention in El Paso is considering whether to put in a proposal.
"It would be a great opportunity, particularly for an organization like ourselves that has returned home to make a contribution to our community," said Eddie Gutierrez, who heads the Eddie Gutierrez Group, which recently won a small contract to promote Downtown El Paso for the Downtown Management District.
"One of the things the city will be looking for is what is the image and what it will look like," he said. "It has to feel like El Paso is a great place to live, work and play," he said. "Often what will happen is you have these outside companies come in and the result is an overall image that will be a cliché.
"You need someone local with national experience."
Morris Pittle, another ex-pat who located his ad agency, Two Ton Creativity, in El Paso a decade ago after working on both coasts, found that city contracts are fraught with peril.
But he, too, is considering whether to jump into the fray for the contract.
He came up with a branding campaign slogan - "El Paso, Capital of the Border" - in 2008 that he thinks might work again, not as a brand, but to tell a regional story about El Paso.
The delicate problem, however, is Juárez, to which El Paso has always linked itself. The city abandoned the "Capital of the Border" campaign because of the rising body count across the river.
Pittle said that situation won't last forever, and in the meantime, El Paso has a great story to tell about safety and business opportunity, and the city's place in a region with great attractions.
Earlier this month, Newsweek put El Paso at the top of a 200-city list of "Can-do Capitals" for its progress on the quality-of-life front, based on a study by Moody's and on federal data.
The Moody's study, however, found that El Paso still has issues with business development and livability.
"What's always been the problem is there's not a central focus," Pittle said. "You need the image and reality to jive. Whatever you do has to be consistent with reality.
"That's why our Downtown marketing never worked - because there was nothing there. You have to build it first, then they will come."
If the city wants to market itself as a place at the center of attractions, such as mountain biking in the Franklin Mountains, rock climbing at Hueco Tanks and skiing at Ruidoso, he said, "you have to resolve your transportation problems first."
So any image campaign will have to confront or finesse the challenge of El Paso's multiple and sometimes conflicting faces and overcome some pent-up opposition to anything that looks like branding.
"I have been very vocal in my opposition to branding campaigns," said city Rep. Steve Ortega. "I think they're a waste of time and money. I think the way a city brands itself is through organic successes or dismal failures."
Seattle, for instance, didn't become known as the coffee capital of America because of an advertising campaign but because Starbucks and Seattle's Best coffee started there. And Austin didn't brand itself as the live music capital, it gained that reputation because of fans, music and the publicity they generated.
Ortega said he was not aware that the city had posted a request for proposals for an image campaign, though he recalls being briefed about the task force effort months ago.
He said he is also unclear about how any publicity effort will be financed and skeptical of efforts to surmount the negative impact of what is happening in El Paso's sister city.
"Every time Juárez is mentioned in the English-language media, El Paso is usually mentioned as well, and there's a dollar figure you can place on that mentioning of El Paso," he said. "Throwing half a million dollars at that problem is not going to solve it."
El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.