Until recently, perhaps only those in a certain income tax bracket knew the name Trois Pommes in Zurich. That changed last week, when the high-end boutique became more well known – and not just for its pricey merchandise. Trois Pommes is the shop where Oprah Winfrey, the African-American entertainment magnate and billionaire, said a sales clerk refused to show her a handbag because, the clerk said, she couldn’t afford it. Winfrey, who was in town to attend the wedding of singer Tina Turner, said she politely requested to see the $38,000 bag three times but was rebuffed each time. She finally left, without making a scene. Winfrey recounted the incident during an interview to promote her new civil rights-era film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in response to a question about ways in which racism has affected her life. The revelation, which has generated international media coverage, is a black eye for Swiss hospitality. Both the Swiss Tourism Office and Zurich Tourism have apologized to Winfrey, which only slightly makes up for the feeble explanation by the owner of Trois Pommes, Trudie Goetz, who claims the encounter was a “classic misunderstanding.” The clerk, Goetz said, is a native Italian speaker who thought Winfrey had asked to see the bag in less expensive materials. This isn’t the first time the 59-year-old media mogul, Oscar-nominated actress and philanthropist has been snubbed while trying to buy a tony handbag. In 2005, Winfrey was locked out of Hermes store in Paris when she tried to enter just at closing time. THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Oprah, who handled both the incident and the disclosure of it with characteristic grace. THE PR TAKEAWAY: Emotion is often the enemy of productive discussion. Of course, Winfrey would have been within her rights to kick up a fuss, either at the time or in the press, but such behavior can sometimes backfire (“You were discriminated against while shopping for a $38,000 purse? Poor you!”). She took the higher road, however, and that has made her story more compelling. By recounting the incident calmly and with perspective, Winfrey has prompted a serious discussion on racism and how it transcends bank accounts and borders.
Is Haiti the new St. Bart’s? Not yet, but a strong campaign to increase tourism may prompt some travelers to take a second look at the controversial Caribbean nation.
Known as the “pearl of the Antilles” in its heyday, Haiti’s beautiful beaches and unique African-French culture attracted the jet set. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton vacationed there 1960s, Bill and Hillary Clinton made it their honeymoon destination in 1975, and Club Med maintained a port of call there until the 1990s. However, years of often violent political instability, the dubious distinction of being the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, and a cataclysmic earthquake in 2010 all but destroyed Haiti’s appeal as a vacation spot.
Until now, or so Haiti hopes. Since the earthquake, the government and organizations like The Clinton Foundation have undertaken major efforts to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and attract marquee names like Marriott Hotels and JetBlue to invest in the possibility of a new Haiti. In January, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe talked tourism at the World Economic Forum in Davos, pressing the flesh of influential world leaders and CEOs. This month, Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism launched a new ad campaign and heavily promoted a partnership with a Canadian tour operator to offer vacation packages from the US and Canada. The media has taken note, with features running in national publications like Travel + Leisure and the BBC as well as dozens of articles in regional publications.
THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Haiti. Despite an unsavory recent history, this well-orchestrated push to re-introduce an old country to a new traveler is getting attention.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Good PR doesn’t happen overnight. The best campaigns have PR integrated into the business plan from the start. When publicists are asked to “write up a PR plan” for a product or initiative at the last minute, creativity suffers and opportunities are lost. Haiti’s PR push, the seeds of which were sown many months ago, is a great example of a thoughtful, strategic approach coming to fruition. Bon voyage!