Finding their voice: What Panama City got when it hired a communications firm

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Mark McQueen, a former Army general who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was no stranger to disaster zones when Hurricane Michael hit. 

At 58, after retiring from the Army, he decided to serve again as the City Manager of Panama City. He began working for the city in September of 2018. Then, on October 10, his job and his city changed forever. 

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In the days and weeks after the Category 5 storm ravaged the city, McQueen worked almost nonstop. He slept on the floor of Police Chief Scott Ervin’s office and helped his employees and city residents get their lives and their town back together. 

“This is Baghdad with trees,” he told The Army Times. “One hundred percent collapse of infrastructure.”

He was even starker when describing the situation to a group of state attorneys general, in Louisiana. 

“To get out and to see the mass devastation that had taken place was beyond anything I had seen, in all of my combat experience,” McQueen said according to the Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, La. 

Within the first few weeks, McQueen told News 13, he realized he needed some help. 

“It wasn’t until the storm happened and I was in dire straits and drawing on my military experience I knew we needed to have an ability to communicate to our leaders at the state level and the national level and to communicate with our citizens,” McQueen said. 

General Mark McQueen said the damage caused by Hurricane Michael was greater than what he had seen in two warzones

News 13 first reported the idea on November 1. McQueen said the city hadn’t chosen a firm yet but was considering hiring a Washington D.C. company called kglobal. 

McQueen acknowledged that the city already had a public information officer, Caitlin Lawrence, but the scale of the disaster and recovery efforts required more help. 

“What I’m trying to do is close the gap of information and gap of what resources are available whether it’s federal, state or local and help get that to the citizens so they can make better decisions for them and their families,” McQueen said.

The response on social media to the idea was mostly negative. And some in the community pointed out that along with an in-house public information officer the city also had access to the resources provided by Bay County’s public information officer and several entities inside the city. 

Those resources are still there and include Destination Panama City, the St. Andrews Waterfront Partnership, The Downtown Improvement Board, the Millville Community Redevelopment Agency, The Downtown North Community Redevelopment Agency and the St. Andrew Community Redevelopment Agency. 

Jennifer Vigil, the president and CEO of The Panama City Community Development Corporation, recalled that in the days and weeks after the storm city leadership did lean on her and others for help and advice with marketing and communications. 

“We’re really good partners with the city,” Vigil said.

Vigil recognized the work kglobal is doing as similar to hers. Locals might not see the results but those outside the immediate area get the message and the local area feels the impact.  

 Vigil’s organization, the Panama City CDC but more commonly referred to as Destination Panama City, was formed in 2015. Vigil leverages an annual budget of around $2 million to try and bring visitors to the city. Her funding comes from bed taxes – a tax paid to hotels by visitors and then remitted to Destination Panama City.   

Following Hurricane Michael, Vigil’s budget shrank to about $750,000 but she says she was seeing success both before and after the storm. 

“We pitch everything,” Vigil said. “We do 100 to 200 pitches a month.”

A pitch is sent to television, web and print publications in hopes that they will feature the city in a positive light. And, in hopes that travelers will catch a bug and come to town for a day, a weekend or a week.  

Vigil said she has had articles about Panama City show up across the country and into Canada. A few examples include an Atlanta Journal-Constitution feature on art day in St. Andrews and a blog post on a travel blog about inexpensive things to do in the city. Vigil said she also got Hunt’s Oyster Bar in USA Today for National Oyster Day.

While Vigil herself has offered the city help and advice even if they wanted to, city officials can’t move money from Vigil’s tourism communications to the recovery and rebuild effort. Her contract is with the county and state law won’t allow her agency to spend on anything other than tourism and branding.

It’s an issue Vigil and other tourism leaders faced even before the storm. Sometimes, community members will come to Vigil hoping her agency will sponsor an event. But if the event isn’t a draw for out of town visitors Vigil can’t really help, she said. 

“A Pancake breakfast doesn’t bring tourists in,” Vigil added.

This is more or less the same issue with the Downtown North CRA, which has a budget of $156,540, the Millville CRA which has a budget of $53,750, the St. Andrews CRA which has a budget of $292,169 and the Downtown Improvement Board which has a budget of $107,429.

While some might see the redundancy in these agencies McQueen sees strength. 

“I don’t think you can narrow it to just having one voice,” he said. “We want all of those entities to make sure we trumpet Panama City to the highest level of exposure.”   

But at least for some in the community it was difficult to understand why the city needed another layer of help nor was it obvious that the city’s resources were already being tapped for advice and help. 

The marketing firm was not hired at that time.   

Then in January, as Washington D.C. and Tallahassee failed to move forward with disaster relief bills for the area several stories began appearing in the local and national media about how Hurricane Michael’s victims felt abandoned. 

Commissioner Jenna Haligas responded to this on Facebook when the Tampa Bay Times published an editorial entitled “Don’t forget Hurricane Michael’s victims.”

“General McQueen had warned us about this. Concerned if we didn’t hire a communications firm on a national level, that we would lose National attention,” Haligas said. “The local news aired a story that we wanted to hire a “PR firm”, which was NOT AT ALL the same kind of national communications firm that General McQueen was wanting to hire. The community was outraged. Sometimes you have to make decisions as a City that is in the best interest of the City even when the people may not understand. It certainly isn’t anyone’s fault, but General McQueen was right. What are your thoughts? Is it too late?”

As the recovery from the storm continued the city hired Hagerty Consulting to provide a host of services to the city including and perhaps most importantly, dealing with the bureaucratic rules and regulations that come from asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist American cities after a disaster. 

Then in March, the city’s contract with Hagerty was amended to add three other companies.

While Hagerty worked on long term recovery planning and an unmet needs assessment, HR&A Advisors worked on an economic development plan and an economic impact assessment. Dover-Kohl & Partners worked on a master plan and kglobal, the firm McQueen first mentioned in November, handles communications.

The amended contract calls for kglobal to be paid $88,900 as part of a $1.3 million increase for all of the teams in the amended contract. However, under the terms of the deal, the total contract with Hagerty cannot exceed $8.3 million.

On their website kglobal bills itself as public relations and public affairs firm that offers a variety of services including media strategy, news story placement, content creation, op-ed writing, and media monitoring and analysis. 

One suspects this story and its response from the community will get analyzed by the folks at kglobal. 

Folks doesn’t quite cover the reach and experience of the staff. The firm lists more than 50 people, including partners, vice presidents, account executives, and digital leaders.

One name that jumps out is Major General Malcolm B. Frost. Frost is a, “communications, media relations, and leader development executive with over 30 years of experience providing large-scale strategic and operational leadership and oversight in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Europe, and the United States for the United States Army.” 

As Frost’s employment suggests, the company has strong ties to the US military having done work for both the Army and the Navy. 

For the Army, “kglobal produced daily digests that analyzed media coverage in near real-time. The AM Daily Digest, also known as the “Morning Report,” evolved into a must-read product for Army leadership and personnel,” the company states. 

Despite these connections and his own former status as an Army general, McQueen said he had no prior relationship with kglobal before his search for help after the storm. 

“Never met them. Never even heard about them,” he said.  

A good communications firm is a little like Keyzer Soze, if they did their jobs effectively you may never even know they were there. 

To get a sense of what the city got from kglobal we spoke with City Manager Mark McQueen and kglobal Partner Randy DeCleene

A team of about six people handle the Panama City job, DeCleene said. 

The firm clearly played a role in the trip Mayor Greg Brudnicki, Superintendent Bill Husfelt and McQueen made to Washington D.C. April. McQueen also said he was very pleased with the community turn out during “Charrette Week” in June. That series of community meetings help the city move forward with bigger plans for recovery and redevelopment. 

“Panama City has an opportunity to finally realize it’s untapped potential,” McQueen said.

The pair also pointed to a sampling of news stories in state and national news organizations where Panama City’s needs were shared with news consumers and movers and shakers in Tallahassee and Washington. 

Those publications include ABC News, NPR, The Hill, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, and Politico. 

“What they are doing is helping me communicate effectively,” McQueen said.

Most of the stories offered focus on how Panama City needed federal aid and how the dysfunction in Washington was hurting hurricane victims. 

“As the mayor of Panama City, the pride I have in how much we’ve done with the scarce resources we’ve had is beyond measure. Our neighbors have taught us that they will bear the burden of rebuilding and will make the community bigger, better, and stronger in the years ahead,” Brudnicki wrote in The Hill in April. “It’s time for Congress and the White House to mirror that commitment, put their differences aside, and recognize that disaster relief funding will have an immediate and direct positive impact on our friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens in Florida and across the country. Given the leadership we see on the ground every day, we know there is no challenge that can’t be overcome.”

In June, that relief they were asking for finally passed Congress and was signed into law by the President.

There is no way to know what kglobal outreach meant for the community. Certainly, city officials got what they wanted when President Donald Trump announced an ongoing commitment to Tyndall Air Force Base and that FEMA would cover 90 percent of the city’s Hurricane Michael costs.

The support from Tallahassee has also seemed strong with state leaders touting nearly 2 billion in expenditures for the region. However, much of that was for the immediate recovery following the storm and is expected to be reimbursed by FEMA.    

Regardless, these are clear wins for the city and for local taxpayers.

However, it also seems clear that Republicans in Tallahassee and Washington were always going to make these things happen. If President Donald Trump wants to win Florida during his re-election he needs voters in the heavily conservative Panhandle to do it. The same goes for Governor Ron DeSantis. 

It’s no secret in political circles just how important this area is to Republicans. If you have any doubt, consider just how often then Governor, now Senator, Rick Scott visited the area during the last eight years. 

There may be one other example of the behind the scenes work done by kglobal. During the interview, McQueen used a phrase he has become very fond of. It’s a phrase that appears in his biography on the city’s website and the kind of thing that sounds market tested and approved. 

“I want Panama City to be premier city in the Florida Panhandle,” McQueen said. 

And kglobal will most likely continue to be a part of that vision. 

“We have an incredible team that is working very hard on behalf of our citizens,” McQueen said. “I’m very pleased with what the team of teams is doing to help the city get back on its feet.” 

McQueen added that the city’s residents have a vital role to play this recovery and since their role is vital communicating with them is just as important. It seems kglobal may have much more work to do. 

“I think we can do more and we are exploring how we can do more to communicate with our citizens,” McQueen said.  

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