TALLAHASSEE — The first shots have been fired in the public relations and lobbying battle over expanded gambling in Florida.
It started with The New York Times reporting last week that Marvel Comics characters were being licensed for use on slot machines, including a Spider-Man-themed model at South Florida’s Mardi Gras Casino.
The catch is that Marvel Comics is owned by family-friendly Disney, which has long opposed gambling in the state.
Quoted in the story bashing Disney was Michael A. Leven, president of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which has been angling to build a destination resort-casino in the state. They’re represented by Sachs Media Group, a Tallahassee-based PR powerhouse.
Then on Thursday, Orlando-based No Casinos Inc. outed Sands, revealing that the company’s Florida lobbyist, Ana Cruz, “orchestrated” a busload of Tampa seniors to speak in favor of gambling at a public workshop held by state lawmakers in Lakeland.
By its own admission, however, No Casinos has 23 paid lobbyists of its own and is adamant about not disclosing its funding sources. State records show at least 180 currently registered lobbyists for various gambling-related concerns.
“Nobody is less pleased than we are with the idea of having to hire lobbyists to defend Florida from the threat that casinos represent,” No Casinos President John Sowinski said in an email. “But this is the hand we were dealt, and we don’t intend to show up with a knife to a gun fight.”
That same day, the Sands fired back with a poll it commissioned showing that 61 percent of Florida voters favor at least some new gambling opportunities, but 67 percent opposed Internet gambling, the bane of big casinos.
“When it comes to destination resorts,” pollster Dave Sackett said, “the answer is an overwhelming yes.”
The poll’s release also was organized by Sachs Media Group, named the Bulldog Awards’ 2011 “PR Agency of the Year.”
So far, the gamesmanship is following the modern public relations playbook, according to the handful of professionals who agreed to be interviewed, on or off the record.
Expect an all-out, multi-layered campaign — using polls, ads and grassroots advocacy — that relies more on what one’s neighbors think than what politicians say.
After years of inaction, the Legislature is considering whether to expand gambling, including Las Vegas-style destination casino-resorts, with a bill likely to be discussed in the 2014 legislative session. Billions of dollars in possible profits and tax revenue are at stake.
The pro-gambling forces suffered a hit early last week when the final version of a statewide gambling study, costing nearly $389,000 and paid for by the Legislature, said expanded gambling would have only “a moderately positive impact on the state economy.”
Sachs referred questions to spokesman Ron Reese. He did not respond to an email with questions about the Times story or on Cruz’s work for the company, which operates casinos in Las Vegas, Bethlehem, Pa., Macau and Singapore.
A bill died in the Legislature last year that would have allowed three new destination hotel-casinos in South Florida.
Legislators also are mindful of the agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, guaranteeing the state a minimum $1 billion from the tribe’s gambling income over five years. That deal could be renewed as early as next year.
The tribe has exclusive rights to Vegas-style gambling outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties, including at its Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
If they lose that exclusivity through expanded gambling, the Seminoles can stop paying what is now more than $200 million a year.
For now, the taste for a piece of the action is fueling a full-court press in the court of public opinion.
Gambling interests “want to sell consumers on the benefits,” said Lisa Brock, a 25-year veteran who heads Tampa-based Brock Communications, a PR and marketing firm. “They’ll reach the young poker-playing crowd, all the way through the seniors, as a way to pass time.
“I would expect both sides to pull out all the stops,” she added, mentioning social media posts, direct mail, billboards, print and television advertising, among other outlets.
“They can’t leave any stone unturned,” said Brock, who does not represent gambling concerns. “Whoever can come up with the sharpest, quickest sound bite, the best tagline, that’s who wins in the game of mass advertising.”
Gambling marketers and others also will use “peer stories” to convince and cajole. That’s when, as one example, people explain how they or their family members are working successfully as casino dealers, servers or security.
Before they do, experts will have run a series of focus groups, seeing which messages move opinions.
“I would be looking at those audiences that you can kind of pick off in support of your position,” said April Salter, president of Tallahassee’s Salter Mitchell firm. She also has no gambling clients, she said.
For instance, at the Lakeland hearing, several senior citizens told lawmakers they enjoyed gambling as a hobby and asked them not to interfere with what they called an adult choice.
That’s the kind of grassroots feedback that Salter and Brock say works on lawmakers and the people they represent.
But Salter, communications director for Gov. Lawton Chiles in the 1990s, said lawmakers should be on guard. When there’s a lot of money involved, “pseudo-groups” form.
That’s also known as “Astroturfing,” when supposedly grassroots support is organized by players with an interest in the outcome.
That’s what No Casinos claims Cruz did in Lakeland; Cruz, who’s based in Tampa, did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment.
Importantly, most people can’t differentiate between grass roots and Astroturf, “and in the crush of a legislative session, legislators don’t know,” Salter said. “But it’s going to be a grassroots game, and about making sure the groups most likely to be affected will have their voices heard.”