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Black sewage blob gives Niagara Falls a PR black eye

The black sewage gunk discharged within sight of the American Falls created a PR black eye for Niagara Falls.

So how are Falls tourism leaders responding after all of the international attention?

They're just hoping the bad publicity dissipates like Saturday's sewage discharge did.

"Today's strategy is to let it go," said John H. Percy Jr., president of Destination Niagara USA, the Niagara Falls and Niagara County tourism promotion agency.

"Whatever got covered, got covered, and leave it at that," Percy said.

Percy said he's open to changing the strategy if conditions change.

The black water first appeared around 4 p.m. Saturday and then expanded for hours and grew into the night. But the black water cloud was gone by 8 a.m. Sunday.

Billowing, black sewer discharge at Niagara Falls alarms businesses, tourists

"It's already disappeared," Percy said. "If the black water still existed, that would be the crisis. The situation would be a lot different."

Threat to reputation

A local public relations executive said the strategy of ignoring the bad publicity won't work.

"It's been a tough few decades for Niagara Falls, New York," said Stephen Bell, managing director of crisis and reputation management at Eric Mower + Associates. "And this just adds to the perception that it's not as nice a place to visit as Niagara Falls, Ontario."

When the Niagara Falls Water Board emptied a sewage basin Saturday afternoon with thousands of tourists at the Falls, it created a threat to the city's reputation given the worldwide coverage of the smelly black water, Bell said.

Just the smell of the Falls sewage discharge chased away food stand customers

"The sharks are circling, and if they don't do something to literally remove the stink that surrounds them, they're going to be in trouble for months to come," Bell said.

"If someone can be reasonably assured that it's one and done, that could work," Bell said. "But in this case, it's not going to work."

Businesses go public

The sources of the publicity were two of Niagara Falls' major tourism businesses.

The Maid of the Mist, whose boat dock was surrounded by the sewage discharge, tweeted a photo and later tweeted a video it received from Rainbow Air, a Niagara Falls helicopter tour company. The video, in particular, has been used by almost every news website that carried the story.

Pat Proctor, the Rainbow Air vice president and pilot who shot the video from 1,100 feet up, is the chairman of the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board.

"It was a concern that tourists were definitely tweeting out themselves, so what are you going to do? Are you going to block everybody out?" Proctor asked. "I wouldn't go after the businesses or the tourism agencies themselves. The responsibility is not ours, it's the Water Board's."

Proctor said he didn't know what caused the black stain on the water, because he had never seen anything like it in 22 years of flying above the Falls. He said he feared it might be an oil leak, perhaps from a Maid of the Mist boat.

"It was very alarming," Proctor said. "If anything, I thought we were helping and aiding. What if it was an oil leak?"

DEC on Niagara Falls sewer gunk: 'Discharge clearly violated water quality standards'

"We have an obligation to guests to inform them of anything that might impact their experience," Maid spokesman Kevin Keenan said.

"This is a really good example of an effective use of social media. Our guests and employees were asking about the black water and the odor, and our calls to city officials were not answered, so we took to Twitter. After that, it didn't take them long to start answering questions," he said.

The media coverage and Cuomo's order for an investigation "reinforce that we made the right decision," Keenan said.

"I don't really blame Rainbow Air," said Jeffrey E. Flach, a hostel owner who serves on the Tourism Advisory Board.

"Certainly, thousands of people saw it, the people on the boat smelled it. It could have gotten out many different ways," Flach said. "At the end of the day, transparency is a good thing."

"But (tourists) tweeting it to their small audiences isn't going to get it picked up by national media," Percy said. "I think people have to be more careful when putting out information into the press or into social media networks."

"You never want any negative publicity," Percy added. "Some people think negative publicity is still good. I don't. I don't think a situation like this is good for anyone. Sometimes when a video is put forth, you don't realize that it can hit the world stage immediately and cause negative damage. I think this could have been contained by certain people and it wouldn't have been blown out of control."

"The bottom line is, this never should have happened to begin with," Percy said. "It's not Rainbow Air or the Maid of the Mist. The people whose fault it is, is the Water Board. This should have never happened on that day or in that time frame, and the Water Board is the culprit here."

World media impact

The video Proctor released has been seen across the world.

Besides heavy coverage in local and Canadian media, the story was picked up by the BBC , whose story was headlined "Niagara Falls: Smelly black water shocks visitors."

The Associated Press story was picked up by numerous newspapers and TV networks, such as the Washington Post, the New York Daily News  and the New York Post among many others from coast to coast.

The BBC story was picked up around the world and even translated into Spanish.

Overseas, the Evening Standard of London reported, "Water near base of Niagara Falls turns alarming shade of black as tourists look on."

"Mysterious smelly black water seeps into Niagara Falls," reported another London paper, the Daily Mail.

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, "Smelly water oozes into Niagara Falls," with sound bites of Water Board officials and tourists set to a soundtrack of spooky music.

Even "Vas Iz Neias?" whose website calls itself "The Voice of the Orthodox Jewish Community," picked up the story.

The Maid of the Mist itself doesn't seem to have been harmed by the flap.

There have been no reports of tourists canceling rides.

"It's had no impact on operations," Keenan said.

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