No Bull, No Fluff, No Smudges
Your news source for
Flagler, Florida and Beyond

Pay for Play: How Flagler’s Tourist Council Bribes Journalists, Who Happily Hack Along

| March 23, 2011

Where illusions end and marketing begins, with apologies to Magritte's 'Fair Captive' ('La Belle Captive,' 1931)

Where illusions end and marketing begins, with apologies to Magritte's 'Fair Captive' ('La Belle Captive,' 1931)

If you ever wonder why journalism and government are two institutions with radioactive credibility problems, look no further than how some “journalists” and Flagler’s own Tourist Development Council do business together. They make Nevada’s whores look like emblems of integrity.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive At 1 p.m. today, four “journalists” are arriving at the Fairfield Inn & Suites for a four-day, three-night tour of Flagler County. One is from West Florida, one from Georgia, one from South Carolina and one who lives in Flagler and blogs about the county on (see their bios here). For the next four days, they’re going to be lodged, dined, toured, pampered and flattered, all expenses paid, by the tourist council and some of the places they’ll be taken to. Their travel to and from Flagler is paid for, too.

The council is budgeting $3,512 for the junket, or $878 per “journalist.” That’s public dollars, by the way, part of the council’s revenue from the local bed tax. It doesn’t include staff time spent with the “journalists,” it doesn’t include the freeby meals, gifts and other bribes they’ll be getting from the places they’ll be taken to. I say the “council”: in reality, the council’s administrative arm is the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, whose vice president for tourism development, Peggy Heiser, is paid for by TDC dollar, though she is officially a chamber employee, and bribish junkets are, no surprise to anyone, any chamber’s specialty.

In exchange, because this is nothing if not a quid pro quo—in chamber language, this for that—the hope is that the quartet will go home and write really nice articles about Flagler County in whatever publications take that sort of mercenary work (which is to say many, if not most, publications out there). There’s no coyness about the means or the intent. “The articles that are written bring added exposure at a very low cost,” Heiser said in an email, without a hint of irony. “In September 2008 we received over eight articles in various travel publications, blogs and travel sites from the media tour we hosted for eight [‘]journalists[’].” Great marketing, in other words, for supposedly cheap currency—and cheaper “journalists.”

Heiser sent me a few samples from a previous junkets. Three examples I looked at (here, here and here) turned out to be short, flatly written pieces that are indistinguishable blurbs from travel brochures. They reminded me of hack book reviews cribbed from publishers’ press releases. They could have just as easily been written after half an hour’s web search from a computer in Taiwan (as some of journalism’s products undoubtedly are). To think that public dollars were spent to get these writers here for that is pitiful. From the looks of it, the response to the articles was pitiful, too: of the six comments on one story, two were from locals happy to see something written about this place, two were requests for clarification. Planting stories on travel blogs at no cost would be simpler.

Let me be clear about a couple of things. First, in my experience of covering local government, the Flagler County Tourist Development Council is the single-most transparent, efficiently run government agency around, with by far the best staff-to-dollars ratio. Little is hidden. I did not have to hunt around for information about this junket. The moment I asked about it, Heiser produced the itinerary, the budget, the writers’ bios, past history and the rationale for it all. No dancing around, no mealy-mouthed explanations. The reason the TDC works is also no mystery: Heiser makes it work. She is, ironically, a reporter’s dream, as straight-up with us (at least in my experience) as she is with the TDC board. She has no hidden agendas, zero pretenses, and none of that weird, gluey sheen of calculated deceit that sticks to so many local executives, public or private. She administers a roughly $700,000 budget, much of it to advertise Flagler County—straight-up advertising, most of it, not bribes.

That’s why the journalist junket is so discordant with everything else, a jagged edge in an otherwise smooth operation. It taints the process, and taints the resulting, hoped-for articles.

Second, the TDC works because it has a good board. It’s a diverse mix of government agencies and tourism business representatives. It’s serious, inquisitive, nonsensical, and obsessive about its integrity. That, too, is in sharp contradiction with bribing journalists. When I spoke with Milissa Holland, the county commissioner who chairs the TDC council, about this, she was fully aware of the contradiction. “We’ve really strived to put such integrity into this process that this needs to be a continued process,” she said. “Coming into next year’s budget as we develop it, these items will be considered heavily.” These items being these junkets: junking them would be a very good idea.

Let me also be clear about who the principal culprits are here. Heiser and the TDC are doing what they, unfortunately, think is normal practice, because “journalists” play along. Why not take advantage? But they’re not the ones giving journalists a bad name. Journalists who participate in these junkets are. What the TDC is doing in Flagler is no different than what TDCs and chambers of commerce and similar organizations across the land do, and not only with travel writers. Travel writing happens to be a particularly pronounced racket.

Freelance travel writers will typically say that they couldn’t afford going to places and experiencing hotels, attractions and the like without having someone else pick up the bill. For the most part, they’re right. But then they shouldn’t be in the business. Respected publications have rules about accepting gifts and payola for a reason: honest journalism cannot afford even the perception of being in the pay of subjects they’re covering. With travel writing, it doesn’t get more ethically and journalistically disgusting than that: freebies from the very places they’ll presumably be reviewing. We’re not talking a movie or theater ticket here, a sandwich there: we’re talking services worth big bucks, combined with the service providers’ awareness that they’re tending to “journalists.” The dishonesty is two-fold: bribes and manufactured obsequiousness. There’s no way you’ll get honest reporting out of that, so whatever will get written is more along the lines of marketing and PR, which are journalism’s Ebola.

The local tourist industry may gain fractional exposure from it all. But it won’t gain critical, independent exposure—the sort of more honest exposure that might reveal flaws as well as qualities, encouraging improvement rather than back-patting complacency.

Serious news organizations have  rules about this stuff. Here’s how the New York Times policy on travel writers reads: “No staff member of our company who prepares a travel article or broadcast — whether on assignment or freelance, and whether for us or for others – may accept free or discounted services or preferential treatment from any element of the travel industry. This rule covers hotels, resorts, restaurants, tour operators, airlines, railways, cruise lines, rental car companies and tourist attractions. This prohibition does not rule out routinely awarded frequent-flier points. Editors or producers who accept travel coverage from nonstaff contributors have an obligation to guard against real or perceived conflicts of interest. They should exercise care in assigning or editing freelancers who have accepted free services while working for other news organizations; such a reputation can embarrass us. We do not give travel assignments to anyone who represents travel suppliers or who works for a government tourist office or as a publicist of any sort.”

And here’s the key about honest travel journalism: “Writers of travel articles must conceal their identity as journalists during the reporting, so that they will experience the same conditions as an ordinary consumer.” The Times has strict rules about hidden identities, applying them only to travel writers and restaurant reviewers, and, with special permission, to under-cover reporters. Tipping off a hotel manager or a tourist attraction defeats the purpose of giving readers an honest account of what they’d experience as ordinary visitors. The TDC’s junket is beyond tipping off: the hosts are active collaborators in the tour.

The Times pays well, of course. Most travel magazines and blogging sites don’t. But poor pay is no rationale for corruption, unless you’re a cop on Cairo’s streets. And look where that got them (though it’s still a fabulous spot for travel writing). Surely Flagler County can do better, hard as it may be to find journalism that isn’t in one chamber pocket or another–and understanding that all journalism since the beginning of times, including mine, has rivaled the world’s oldest profession to one degree or another. The trick is to avoid pimps like the plague, not work for them.

The TDC has most things right. Ending publicly-funded bribes to journalists would be one more feather in its credibility cap.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

12 Responses for “Pay for Play: How Flagler’s Tourist Council Bribes Journalists, Who Happily Hack Along”

  1. palmcoaster says:

    TDC will invest those local hotels bed tax received for promoting Flagler County “as well as its cities, hotels, attractions and eateries” for much less of the 700,000 minus Heiser’s probably generous salary. What I see here is once more “show you Who is Who and dine and wine me and you” …for what? a once review posted in this local Florida’s web sites and one Florida Magazine? Does the TDC have a system in place to confirm the success of those funds spent? Like all the details demanded to any community organization receiving meager TDC funds, showing how many hotel nights the potential attracted tourist paid for on the sponsored event? I bet NO! Just Hiser’s word and unchecked promises are sufficient. Would be much less expensive for TDC to create its own web site linked to mayor engine searches like Google and others, targeting outsiders from frozen states and countries in the winter, targeting sports enthusiast like Palm Coast started doing finally. There are so many sports events that can be organize here with hundreds and or thousands of entry fee paying enthusiast that will also utilize the local hotels and restaurants. But would be advertised all the ones in the whole county and not only the ones as listed in those junkets from unincorporated County and Flagler Beach only. Besides the point why to advertise Flagler County in other Florida areas? Are we so gullible to think that Tampa, Key west or Miami residents will vacation here? Maybe those “tourist writers rocket scientist” are Heiser’s Floridian buddies?
    I bet my daughter gets more national and international tourist in her dozen units that she manages on her Volusia Beach Resort a year, than Heiser here. She just lists on a national and international web site for vacation owners rentals, at a only one time $199/a year cost and works great. Probably more than Heiser gets in these Flagler County Hotels on a 700,000 plus all the freebies comp rooms and meals she gets for the exposure, shown in just those Florida junkets. I am sure that if lodging would be confirmed . will find out that those wasted funds would have not been justified.
    These local small hotels won’t dare raise questions against Who is Who, in charge of efficiently promoting their businesses by TDC cause they can be witch hunted. Only the big ones maybe get their slice of this small pie…deja vu. Meanwhile Heiser and her Chamber VIP’s get reassured the Ginn’s Sundancer free ride and other freebies plus their pay.
    I am glad Palm Coast at least started their own promotions and I hope they make sure the events are totally self sufficient and if they leave some additional revenue, better! Proof success by offering promotional discount coupons for hotels, restaurants and events to be presented on arrival, works.

  2. Alex says:

    Give them money they will find a way to spend it.

  3. PCer says:

    I don’t see the problem with it. They give them money, they give us a good review in their local paper, people come and visit Flagler County and spend their money here. If you don’t like the journalism, fine. But would we rather them show up, have a crappy time, and then write in their local paper to not visit Flagler? I think not. Pay them to come down, show them a good time, then let them go back and tell their readers.

  4. Bill Hazz says:

    Too bad that palmcoaster can’t write a cohesive paragraph. It would be interesting in finding out what he (?) is really trying to say. He is clueless on how the real world works, and to quote him “I am glad Palm Coast at least started their own promotions and I hope they make sure the events are totally self sufficient and if they leave some additional revenue, better! Proof success by offering promotional discount coupons for hotels, restaurants and events to be presented on arrival, works.

    Again, clueless, as he is “hoping” that Palm Coast makes sure that their events are totally self sufficient. He doesn’t know, but yet he’s hopeful . . . that’s really sweet!

  5. Wake-Up says:

    It has to be determined what is not being done right, before it can get better. Melissa Holland is great at spitting out a bunch of nothing. Does this Commissioner ever say anything intelligent? Word of mouth is the best advertisement, and if people who live here can’t sell this place; a few journalists won’t be able to. To know this area has the highest unemployment rate, and to come to this area and see all the vacant homes is enough to make people realize they have no need to come here. Unemployment = crime.

  6. emile says:

    The problem is that none of these journalists HAVE a “local paper.” They are all freelancers and will try to sell their stories to any paper that will accept them.

    Responsible newspapers will not allow their own photojournalists to accept payment from tourist bureaus or take free junkets to promote a locale.

  7. palmcoaster says:

    Bill there is little else that can be done besides leading the horse to the water!
    Pretending not to understand a written issue is no longer an acceptable excuse. If you do not like one of our compositions here…be brave and come with your own positive ideas or suggestions over issues like this one so maybe they ones in control read them and take the right path. And yes I think that Palm Coast has taken on its own the right approach to attract tourism so far. And yes all starts as a hopeful successful event. Nothing is guaranteed in life but at least they are not dilapidating 700,000 plus a year besides a juice salary.
    Regarding your “cohesive” recalls the following (if you can understand this paragraph):
    A power has risen up in the government greater than the people themselves, consisting of many and various and powerful interests, combined into one mass, and held together by the “cohesive” power of the vast surplus in the banks.
    John C. Calhoun

  8. dlf says:

    Pierre: I was also hoping we would get your take on the New York Times report that it looks like the the Brotherhood may be taking control of Egypt, I guess we should be careful what we pray for , we may not like what we get. Be of interest to all of us on your take of what this would mean if it should happen. Looks like it may happen, we all know the New York Times would not report something that was not true. I would think this would be a set back for the freedom fighters that made it possible, certainly not what they wanted or was it? With all the other problems we have this is not one worth your time. We need more from you on the current new war, the new policy Obama is taking toward the prison in Cuba or how we may detain people we want to question about their feelings towards the USA. Don’t see to much on any of these subjects from your magic pen.

  9. Bobbie Hasselbring says:

    Dear Mr. Tristam,

    You say that reputable publications like the New York Times won’t allow their writers to go on sponsored trips, but is Flagler County going to get the NY Times to cover your area? Not likely. Freelance travel journalists can not afford to travel to destinations and write about them because publications (I’m sure like your’s) pay terribly. A trip that might cost a journalist hundreds or thousands of dollars may yield $50–$200 from a story. So CVBs and Chambers of Commerce work together with journalists to promote their areas and bring journalists in.
    To suggest that journalists are “bought” is insulting. I’ve been an award-winning journalist for more than 25 years and I know for a fact that I do not compromise my journalistic duties when I am on a sponsored trip. If I don’t like what I see, I don’t say I do. I don’t lie to my readers. Nor do I “cheat” these communities by giving them little or no coverage. I go out of my way to produce high-quality stories in both print and online publications that serve both my readers and the communities I write about. Smaller communities like Flagler need tourism dollars and need freelance travel journalists to cover what you have to offer. That you don’t get this just shows how ignorant you are of the tourism industry. — Bobbie Hasselbring

  10. palmcoaster says:

    @ Bobbie Hass… maaan, are you defending your freebie forced tax payers sponsored journalist trips.
    In nowadays economy “your strongly defended journalist trips mount to zero results for us the Flagler County tax payers at least. Just a bunch of ours and our visitors hard earned dollars thrown away out to individuals like you, other than paying for “real advertising in media sources like the NY Times, Tourism and Homes Magazines the Internet targeting the north frozen belt capitals, etc. And try a different one every year after assessing “real results”other than the usual “hear say”. Other than over paying a picked top banana like in Flagler now at 100,000, they should learn maybe from Volusia being a county 4 times the population than ours paying a more realistic $71,000 or less for the same “professional” Maybe also we should learn from Volusia County to shake up what their TDC does, like they have done lately while proving financial abuses and mismanagement of their hard to come by TDC funds. Maybe we should take their example.
    Meanwhile here City of Palm Coast so far is in the right track with self sufficient tourism attracting events, given the great ideas of our recreation department official Lisa Gardner. Probably she is not handed the compensation that Turner of TDC is given and also the wasted 880,000 year to play with, in the company of the FCCO(U)C’s Baxter. While the local Chamber will continuo getting its paws in the TDC cookie jar, the excellent over stated results (hear say) but pathetic real ones will not change, wether now Gary Lubi is their chairman or not. This chamber is not for its business members and the local economy improvement, but instead to benefit the pockets of their elite and influence our ballots on elections.
    My sincere appreciation to Flagler Live for the courage to bring to light the realities of a broken Flagler TDC system no matter who’s interest affected, will generate virulent attacks.

  11. Kip Durocher says:

    This is just typical of the Gamer Pyle style of government that Flagler County and the residents of cities in Flagler County have been accustomed too.
    Bull Dog Drive public domain then forgotten.
    The Chamber of Commerce (unelected business people) calling the shots for The County Commission, The School Board, and any city they can badger into their position.

    “The TDC’s junket is beyond tipping off: the hosts are active collaborators in the tour.”
    The problem here is that the morals of the TDC, Chamber of Commerce, County Commissioners and all the others involved are perfectly ok with this deception. Corruption is easy to wash from a continually brain-washed brain.

Leave a Reply

FlaglerLive's forum, as noted in our comment policy, is for debate and conversation that adds light and perspective to articles. Please be courteous, don't attack fellow-commenters or make personal attacks against individuals in stories, and try to stick to the subject. All comments are moderated.

Read FlaglerLive's Comment Policy | Subscribe to the Comment Feed rss flaglerlive comment feed rss

More stories on FlaglerLive

FlaglerLive Email Alerts

Enter your email address to get alerts.


support flaglerlive palm coast flagler county news pierre tristam
news service of florida

Recent Comments

FlaglerLive is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization | P.O. Box 254263, Palm Coast, FL 32135 | Contact the Editor by email | (386) 586-0257 | Sitemap | Log in