Gerardo Llanes is the man charged with luring visitors back to Mexico. Saddled with a reputation for drug-fuelled violence, following tough economic conditions and a swine flu outbreak, the country is readying expanded budgets to kickstart a global tourism revival. As CMO of Tourism Mexico, Llanes recently consolidated the country’s $15 million PR account with Ogilvy PR, and discusses how he is hoping to convince people that his country is safe.

Do you feel that international media coverage of Mexico is unfair?

Generally speaking, bad news tends to sell more papers. Many times what we are trying to do is counteract those news stories. There are things happening, we won’t deny it, but the reality is that the perception is a lot different from what is really going on in Mexico. The challenge we have is to show the potential traveller or the doubting traveller, and show them the reality between what the media is saying and what is happening at tourist destinations in Mexico.

How exactly are you hoping to meet that challenge?

We have a very strong and integrated plan for the first time in many years. We have six or seven agencies - media, creative and Ogilvy as a PR agency. Instead of working independently with each one, we are making them work together to create the best strategy and executions to communicate our message out there. It’s a great challenge but I think we are achieving it. This is how to create one integrated plan to overcome or to strengthen the image of Mexico. We want to tell our stories on all levels, at the trade level, the media level and, most importantly, at the consumer level.

What is the story you are looking to tell?

The reality of the story is our slogan: ‘The Place You Thought You Knew’. One, that Mexico is a lot more than sunny beaches, mariachis and tequila, and we are showing with our campaign a Mexico you really haven’t thought about. Even if we show places like Cancun which are world famous, we are showing the other side of Cancun, the side that most tourists haven’t seen. The second part is that you are reading about the problems that are v focused in different cities in Mexico. We are trying to show them how great Mexico is in the words and comments of real travellers to Mexico that have come back. So they can say - look at my experience, that is a place you thought you knew but you didn’t. We’re using the stories of real people, telling their real experiences, uncensored and unedited. And we are using a lot PR and social media networks. We believe it is easier for a consumer to believe a consumer than when you have an institution like mine trying to convince Mrs Jones in Iowa.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon features prominently in your marketing efforts. What is the thinking there?

He strongly believes that Mexico is a great place, but he also wants to show the Mexico that people don’t really know. He shows a lot of places in Mexico that are traditionally not known to travel agents or travellers. He does address some questions about security and safety. We don’t hide the fact that there are some issues, but what we emphasise are those issues are very localised and in a small percentage of the country.

Why did you choose Ogilvy PR to handle your global PR account?

As a government entity, we have a very strict bidding process that evaluates based on our needs the best agency, the number of people they can provide, the network they have worldwide, and of course the cost or fee. The second part is the qualitative part of the evaluation. So we have a very strict assessment process that all government contracts have to go through. Does it not fit or not? We felt that Ogilvy presented the best opportunity for us, after they met all the requirements.

What was it about their plan that you liked?

One of the best things is they understand and they presented a very integrated plan from all aspects - media relations, media affairs, consumer - all levels of what a PR strategy should cover. They even went a little step beyond and asked how can we use PR through social networks and through advertising. They touched all of the points - media, trade and consumer.

Are you increasing your PR budget, compared to the overall marketing spend?

We are increasing all of our marketing budgets and we believe that PR and social media are two elements we need to increase financially. We’ve been aggressive in traditional media. We’ve been strong in PR but a little weaker in social media. But we believe PR and social media have to be a stronger element of our marketing mix because that is the way the world is moving. We’re expecting the whole marketing mix to be $30m and of that 50 percent is PR or social media.