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Chris Jones

Local Leaders United in Belief Las Vegas Remains Safe

11 August 2004

Southern Nevada politicians and business leaders scrambled Tuesday to respond to allegations they failed to make public news of suspected al-Qaida activities on the Strip over fears such information would disrupt local tourism.

And while their replies ranged from Oscar Goodman's threatened lawsuit to widespread dismay with the media for pouncing on every rumored threat, local leaders were united in their belief that Las Vegas remains safe for tourists and locals.

"Our guests' safety is paramount," said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the semipublic agency that promotes tourism in Southern Nevada.

Local leaders should be "very concerned" about how that approach is portrayed in the media, he added.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the convention authority has spent several months and tens of millions of dollars enticing would-be travelers with promises that "What happens here, stays here." But with new accusations that the "what" in question may include undisclosed terror threats, the authority now has a much different public relations war.

At Tuesday's convention authority board meeting, Las Vegas Mayor Goodman denied he or his staff ever received, let alone suppressed, news of credible terror threats. He then went on to raise the controversy's already high profile by suggesting the authority sue anyone who says otherwise.

Clark County Commissioners Yvonne Atkinson Gates and Mary Kincaid-Chauncey issued similar denials Tuesday. Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson said sharing a "we knew nothing" message must quickly become a top priority.

"Within hours we need to respond in a powerful way," Gibson said just hours before he and Ralenkotter issued a statement through the convention authority's contracted advertising agency, R&R Partners.

"We want the world to know that if we ever do have information of a specific and credible threat, we will share it, even if it meant visitors decided to stay home as a result," they said in the statement.

While Goodman directed legal counsel Luke Puschnig to look into suing federal officials whose charges Goodman dismissed as "a figment of somebody's imagination," both Ralenkotter and Puschnig said it's too soon to tell if their best path leads through a courtroom.

However, two national communications experts said legal action may be more trouble than it's worth.

"If you make too much of it, you're just going to make the story even bigger," professor Irving Rein, who has taught crisis management and other communication subjects at Northwestern University near Chicago since 1969, said Tuesday. "If indeed (the cover-up allegations) are not true, overreacting is a mistake."

Rein correctly predicted local leaders would draft a denial and try to ensure that its message went public. He also suggested the city play up its ongoing commitment to public safety, a script locals followed to the letter later Tuesday.

"Any time there has been any hint of concern, or even a news story, we have taken the step of contacting law enforcement," the statement said.

Billy Vassiliadis, chief executive officer with R&R Partners, understands Goodman's anger but said he'd prefer tourism leaders speak directly with the same media outlets that publicized Tuesday's threat story. Outside of that, he hopes television audiences' notoriously short attention spans will benefit Las Vegas this time around.

"You let the frenzy run itself out, the media cycle will change and the 24-hour news folks will find something else to obsess over next week," Vassiliadis said. "Somewhere between Kobe (Bryant), Scott (Peterson) and the Republican National Convention ... they'll find something else to obsess over after a while."

Looking ahead, Rein said it's important for Las Vegas to build upon its reputation as a safe haven for millions of worldwide travelers.

And if it's later discovered a threat was truly ignored, as Detroit-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino and others have suggested?

"They would obviously be more interested in money over the safety of the people who would come," said Rein, who added he believes post-Sept. 11 sensitivities make it highly unlikely public leaders would risk their careers to hide an actual terrorist danger.

"The real issue is credibility. You want to make sure the city has goodwill toward" its guests, Rein said.