Cities Tap Shops to Aid Post-SARS Recovery

Anticipating life after quarantines and face masks, two of the cities hardest hit by SARS, Hong Kong and Toronto, have selected PR and ad agencies to woo back tourists and businesses once the crisis has passed.

China, which has suffered more than 260 deaths (and more than 200 in Hong Kong alone), chose WPP Group’s Burson-Marsteller, and Toronto has tapped Omnicom Group’s Fleishman-Hillard and BBDO to develop post-Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome marketing campaigns. Hong Kong has allocated $130 million for its effort, while Toronto’s budget is nearly $100 million.

Burson has worked for the government of Hong Kong for the past two years; the Washington office recently worked on its “Asia’s World City” promotions. Last month, the city charged Burson to develop a recovery strategy once the disease has been contained. Hong Kong Tourism Board shop Foote, Cone & Belding in Irvine, Calif., will create ads for the effort.

Although there were no figures available specifically for the city of Hong Kong, the Asian Development Bank predicted SARS could cost the Asian region $28 billion through declines in tourism and investments.

“[Burson] has an international network with experience in crisis management and a good track record working with the government,” said Yvonne Choi, government of Hong Kong director of information services. “We need to put into place a plan as early as possible to relaunch Hong Kong when SARS is contained.”

Toronto has seen 24 people die from SARS and only last week was taken off The World Health Organization’s list of cities whose general population is considered at risk for the disease. Earlier this month, the city held a review and selected BBDO Canada and Fleishman-Hillard Canada to devise ad and PR campaigns to draw visitors back to the city. BBDO has already begun its efforts with a campaign that broke last week and will run through June. It is tagged, “Toronto: You belong here.”

“Our mandate was to re-energize Torontonians and the business community in the wake of SARS,” said Gerry Frascione, CEO of BBDO Canada in Toronto. (Toronto accounts for about 20 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product, and J.P. Securities estimated SARS has cost the city $30 million a day.)

“If [Hong Kong and Toronto] were corporations, they would have done this on day one,” said John Verret, associate professor of advertising at Boston University and a former president of Boston-based Arnold. He added that due to people’s fears of the disease, “[attracting tourists] will be a difficult job for both cities.”

At press time, a total of 573 SARS-related deaths had been reported from 29 countries, according to WHO.