Not long ago, Baltimore's tourism bureau invited public relations guru Richard Laermer to town for a pep talk.
"I said 'good job,' " recalls Laermer, who was impressed with the group's effort to let the world know Baltimore had changed and that it was time to "Get in on it."
But when he heard Mayor Sheila Dixon was convicted of embezzling gift cards for the needy, his first thought was: Baltimore's back to square one. "I thought about all those people and how they must be sitting there going, 'What the hell?' All that work tossed away."
Like many in the image-is-everything world of PR, marketing and branding, Laermer thinks Dixon - who early in her term made invigorating tourism a personal priority - has ended up harming Baltimore's national reputation.
News of her conviction landed last week in hundreds, if not thousands, of media outlets - grabbing headlines in everything from USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal to NPR and CNN. She even got a ribbing from Jay Leno.
"It's such a pathetic, petty crime and this is the mayor for crying out loud," says Ariel Ozick, CEO of Wired Rhino, a reputation management company. "If this was a city with a great reputation, it would be bad, but take a city like Baltimore that is already on the ropes, and it just makes the whole image of the city look a lot worse."
Back in the summer of 2007, the newly elected Dixon was traveling alongside executives of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, helping to wine, dine and otherwise charm decision-makers into choosing Baltimore for their lucrative annual meetings. Now, Laermer thinks the organization needs to immediately erase the mayor's welcome video from its Web site.
BACVA President Tom Noonan declined a request for an interview, except to say in an e-mail message, "Visit Baltimore will continue to sell our great city and the record pace that we have established over the last three years."
In the same breath, people are comparing Baltimore with tainted places such as Detroit, where Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was embroiled in a sex scandal, and Illinois, where Gov. Rod Blagojevich was forced out of office after accusations surfaced that he tried to sell President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.
"Baltimore is too small to weather this kind of scandal as well as, say, a New York or Chicago," says Scott Sobel, president of Media & Communications Strategies, in Washington. "This kind of conviction certainly hurts the city's reputation and its ability to be seen as a reliable business culture."
Don Miller, who heads the public affairs division of Harrison Leifer DiMarco Public Relations in New York, and who specializes in crisis management, says just one political scandal can wreak almost limitless damage.
And such negativity, when connected with a place, he says, has a way of working itself deep into the public mindset. He points to Brookhaven, N.Y., which after several scandals in the 1990s, can't seem to shake the nickname "Crookhaven." And he notes "Tammany Hall" and "Boss Tweed" from late-1800s New York, still conjure images of dirty politics.
But not everyone in public relations sees Dixon's transgression as a permanent black eye for Baltimore. In fact, because so many politicians are being caught philandering or stealing or bribing, she becomes only the latest entry on a growing list.
"Unfortunately, the mayor is not the first, or second, or 10th mayor, nationally, to be found guilty of committing a crime, and won't be the last," says communications strategist Matt Eventoff, with PPS Associates in Princeton, N.J.
Furthermore, in a 24-hour news cycle, where good and bad stories fly at people faster than balls from a batting machine, this particular item about Dixon probably won't stick in anyone's mind, says Bill Cowen, a professor and director of Villanova University's public relations program.
"Audiences are so message-saturated right now, it's sometimes questionable what is retained," Cowen says. "Baltimore had so many good things happening ... it takes more than one news piece to affect that."
Some public relations experts say the impact on Baltimore's reputation will have a lot to do with how the city handles itself in the coming days and weeks.
Daniel Cherrin, communications director for the mayor who succeeded Kilpatrick in Detroit, knows something about trying to restore the public trust.
Because of the disgraced Kilpatrick, Cherrin says, Detroit lost conventions and saw its bond rating fall. If Dixon truly has Baltimore's best interests at heart, he says, she would pack up her desk.
"For the city to move forward, something needs to happen," he says. "You cannot conduct the business of the city with this cloud over it. It takes strong leadership to say enough is enough and move on."
Gerald Patnode, a former Baltimorean who coordinates the marketing programs at York College of Pennsylvania, agrees that Baltimore could come out of this relatively unscathed - but only if the city's power brokers step up ... to get Dixon to step down.
"She has to go away to help clear the air," he says. "As long as she stays in office, that can do nothing but hurt the city."