International marketing has been a big part of Kentucky’s economic development strategy at least since Gov. Martha Layne Collins persuaded Toyota to build an assembly plant in Scott County 26 years ago. It’s now routine for governors to make sales trips to Japan, and Gov. Steve Beshear added India to his list. The level of spending on these expeditions raises eyebrows at times but few question that international partnerships have been good for the commonwealth, on the whole.
Mike Cooper’s problem was that he spent too little on his trip to London, England, last year. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet took issue with the tourism commissioner’s acceptance of travel and dining gifts from Gosh P.R., a British marketing firm hired by the state (with Cooper’s endorsement) to pitch Kentucky to British citizens. Following revelations about Cooper’s unauthorized trip and a demented public relations campaign, the cabinet canceled its contract with Gosh P.R. and the commissioner resigned his position.
Among the expenses on last June’s trip was a $667 dinner for four that Cooper attended in London. He told the cabinet he met with travel writers, tour organizers and others to tout Kentucky attractions while in England.
The Herald-Leader said Tim Pollard, of the tourism cabinet’s finance office, sent Cooper and Gosh P.R. a letter advising he was not allowed to take gifts or gratuities from companies doing business with the state.
John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, wouldn’t reveal whether Cooper was under investigation but said a $25 limit on contractor gifts is generally intended to stamp out influence-peddling. He said it’s not unusual for contractors to wine and dine customers in the private sector but government frowns on that sort of thing.
(In fact, some private businesses also have policies against accepting favors that might compromise professional standards. Companies should sell their products, not trade away their integrity.)
What makes the Cooper case doubly disturbing is that the P.R. executives with whom he partied did a lousy job promoting Kentucky. In a followup story, the Herald-Leader said Wednesday that the state had pulled a website describing the Bluegrass state to Britons after learning it was filled with inaccurate information, misspelled names and a sales pitch that portrayed the commonwealth in an uncomplimentary light.
One website entry suggested Brits could ease the tedium of long-distance travel by playing “road-kill bingo” – keeping count of dead animals it said are commonplace on Kentucky roadsides. “Sadly,” it commented, “roadkill is a fact of life in Kentucky.”
This is the stuff our tourism commissioner reached across the Atlantic to buy? We’re not against campaigns inviting world travelers to visit Kentucky, but gosh, let’s at least insist the marketing mavens get their facts straight and not perpetuate stereotypes that this part of America still struggles to overcome.
Cooper, a former campaign organizer for the Democratic Party and the governor who earned $111,353 year as tourism commissioner, should have known better. He and the cabinet should have demanded more from Gosh P.R. in its $179,900-a-year contract to sell Kentucky abroad.
We can only hope the next tourism commissioner exercises better judgment and chooses more competent promoters.