Through a public records request, the Contact 5 investigators obtained nearly four months of Zika-related e-mails to and/or from VISIT FLORIDA's CEO Will Seccombe. The e-mails show how leaders in the partially taxpayer funded tourism agency grew increasingly frustrated with the media's portrayal of the virus' spread in Florida.
In several e-mails, sent or received between June and September 2016, the height of the Zika scare, Visit Florida's CEO is praised for his "calm and thoughtful leadership," wrote Roger Dow, President and CEO of U.S. Travel Association. "You are methodically taking lessons learned from the gulf oil spill and informing industry with facts to avoid an infodemic during the very fluid situation," he wrote.
In another e-mail from a partner, visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe and "the Visit Florida team" are described as having "been outstanding and should inspire confidence."
But other e-mails show the toll Florida's summer long Zika outbreak caused for Florida's bread and butter tourism industry.
After an August e-mail alerted VISIT FLORIDA members that an Alabama-based meeting planner was taking Florida off its list of meeting destinations due to Zika, Seccombe responded, "I am sure that the Governor and Surgeon General would be more than happy to get on the phone with meeting planners to keep FL on the list."
In a string of other e-mails, Seccombe is sent a series of positive talking points to stick with when dealing with the press and fellow industry members.
"We have complete confidence in the Zika response efforts of state and local authorities," was one of the headlines.
At one point, Seccombe advises his team to add an additional talking point after reading an article where Governor Rick Scott brought perspective to the disease's outbreak, which at the time, was limited to a one square mile of the artsy Wynwood area in Miami.
"Like the tourism focused messaging," he wrote. "Really like the perspective in the 15 hour drive and one square mile. We may want to use that in talking points." [In his remarks, the Governor said it takes 15 hours to drive from the northern part of Florida to the Southern end.
By the end of August, Governor Rick Scott and the Lt. Governor were traveling the state conducting Zika preparedness roundtable discussions.
One e-mail may have suggested Seccombe and VISIT FLORIDA do the same.
"So you can see he is doing nothing but Zika round tables- maybe that's what we need to do in Miami. He is looking for help and I guess he just doesn't feel we as an industry are helping enough," wrote an industry partner.
A handful of e-mails show Visit Florida and its partners were, for the most part, disgusted with media coverage, they criticized, for over-hyping the Zika outbreak.
In response to a September Miami Herald article criticizing Governor Scott and the FL Department of Health for undercounting Zika cases and leaving out critical details, Florida Keys PR guru Andy Newman wrote to Seccombe, "this is obviously not a balanced story, it casts a very bad image on the state's tourism industry."
Another industry partner replied, "Very true. We can't get hit anymore....now all we need is a hurricane."
Visit Florida's head also dissed the media's Zika coverage. In response to an Irish online article warning pregnant women against Florida travel, Seccombe accused the paper of using a "click bait" headline. "Hate the click bait headlines," he wrote to an industry partner.
In another e-mail, a Disney executive wrote to Seccombe, "shit is flying around here and at corporate," referring to a bloomberg.com article that suggested a dip in summer Disney travel due to Zika concerns. Seccombe replied, "I bet. Ugh!"
As a result of Zika, Visit Florida started conducting online surveys every other week starting in late June. By early August, those surveys increased to weekly and continued through the end of summer.
By mid-September, Florida's Zika transmission numbers had tripled while the state health department expanded its Zika zones to include a portion of North Miami Beach and the Little River. Around the same time, the state lifted its advisory in the Wynwood area.
"One step forward two steps back," Seccombe wrote in an e-mail to a colleague.
About a month earlier, Seccombe probably summed up the summer best in an e-mail response to a Tampa-based realtor concerned about attendance drops at SeaWorld. In Seccombe's response, he described having just returned from a family trip to Colorado, "lots of fun, but I spent most of my time on the phone dealing with Zika. It has been a tough summer."
As of December 21st, there have been 1,272 confirmed cases of Zika in Florida. 253 were locally acquired. There are currently no identified areas in the state with active Zika transmission.