Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

On July 26, Sarah Schaffer arrived home from St. Louis after attending Destinations International's annual convention, a gathering of tourism promotion professionals. On the flight back, she thought about the very last session she attended. The topic was crisis management.

She waited until the following morning to unpack, but as she was putting things away, she was interrupted by a flurry of calls and texts from her team members. She would soon be putting into action what she had learned in that last conference session.

President Donald Trump had begun what would become a series of more than 20 tweets and retweets targeting U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, who, the day before, had blasted the administration for its treatment of children on the border with Mexico.

From the start, the attacks were more than personal; they were regional. Cummings' district includes more than half the city of Baltimore, which the president called "a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" and a "very dangerous and filthy place."

Trump retweeted photos and videos showing garbage-strewn lots as well as video surveillance that captured violent crime. He said economic and crime statistics were "the worst in the United States." Then came the capper: "No human being would ever want to live there."

Schaffer is chief marketing officer of Visit Baltimore, the agency charged with increasing tourism to the city. There was reason to believe Trump's messages might resonate with his national base: The tweets averaged far more likes than most in his Twitter feed, and the attacks were amplified beyond Twitter by national media.

Aware that any response Baltimore and its supporters made would likely stimulate additional presidential tweets -- "We knew Trump has a penchant for doubling down," she told me -- they nonetheless felt compelled to react, and react quickly. Her team and its public relations firm, Turner, worked through the weekend on a crisis strategy and put together a full-page ad to run in the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post and the Washington edition of the New York Times.

The ad headline, "People are talking about Baltimore," was intentionally double-edged. It didn't directly refer to the presidential tweetstorm, but instead highlighted Baltimore's top-five placement on nationally respected lists: Johns Hopkins Hospital is ranked third by U.S. News & World Report; Baltimore is fifth on Forbes' list of rising cities for startups, fifth on Entrepreneur magazine's top cities for minority entrepreneurs and second on SmartAsset's list of best cities for women in tech.

I asked Schaffer why Visit Baltimore would spend six figures on media in markets that are in essence local, rather than putting the word out to potential feeder markets.

"Our audience for tourism is global, but the president's attack felt like a punch in the gut to locals," she said. "We knew the ad in the Sun would ignite and incite civic pride, and it did. The Washington Post is a national newspaper, and it and the New York Times are read by the political class in Washington. We wanted to make it clear that our narrative will not be written by anyone but us."

The response to the campaign, which was also carried on social media, generated more positive talk about Baltimore than might have occurred had the city simply laid low in hopes the controversy would pass quickly or, in fact, had the president never tweeted at all.

It wasn't surprising that local notables like filmmaker John Waters and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank expressed support, but so did non-native celebrities, including basketball star Steph Curry, author Stephen King and former news anchor Dan Rather.

And, in the end, there could be some positive economic impact. Meetings planners have reached out to Schaffer saying they will now consider Baltimore for their next conference as a show of support. And Adel Grobler of the Turner public relations firm said she's gotten interest from reporters who want to visit the city, including one freelancer who said he'd pay his own way entirely to make sure he contributed to the local economy.

Schaffer said the tone and tenor of the president's tweets were bad enough, but what bothered her the most was his saying that Baltimore was a place no one would want to live. That not only could have a negative impact on the local tourism economy, it was a blow to residents who want to share and celebrate their achievements in arts, culture, business and beyond.

"People who have come here as tourists have ended up relocating here and putting down roots," she said. "But it all starts with a visit."

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