Discover DeKalb’s marketing of Brookhaven’s Cherry Blossom Festival was done by a firm selected with “no rhyme or reason” rather than a competitive bid, a spokesperson for the agency said. The campaign included paid “digital influencers” whose track record of effectiveness is unclear.

Discover DeKalb is collecting nearly $4 million in hotel/motel taxes in 2017, money that will go toward promoting tourism throughout the county and in cities such as Brookhaven. The taxes are collected from people staying in hotels and motels in the county and its cities.

Recently, Discover DeKalb spent $200,000 marketing Brookhaven’s Cherry Blossom Festival, which was held March 25 and March 26 at Blackburn Park and attracted about the same 15,000-person attendance as last year, city officials estimate. That amount spent included about $45,000 to hire 10 “digital influencers” to promote the festival.

Michael Lee, spokesperson for Discover DeKalb, said the agency contracted with global public relations firm Porter Novelli, which has an Atlanta office, to work with the digital influencers to promote the festival.

“We just chose them. There was no rhyme or reason,” he said of contracting with Porter Novelli. He did add the company was recommended to Discover DeKalb.

Discover DeKalb was formed in 1984 as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization and is a separate entity not affiliated with DeKalb County government. Oversight of the agency is conducted by an executive director who answers to a board of directors, which meets quarterly. Members of the board include several hotel industry representatives.

As a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, Discover DeKalb is not required by federal law to solicit bids for its marketing campaigns.

“Digital influencers” are a recent trend in branding businesses and organizations in which people with a significant social media presence, such as on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are paid to promote products and events to their followers through photos and comments.

Brookhaven’s role in a marketing campaign for an event such as the Brookhaven Cherry Blossom Festival is minimal, Lee said.

“The city doesn’t decide the strategy. We’re the subject matter experts,” he said. “We’re the official tourism agency for the city. This was the first festival of the season and it was an opportune time to do it [use digital influencers].”

“This was an awareness campaign,” Lee added, saying the $45,000 spent gave Discover DeKalb “quantitative data.” Using new branding and advertising tools is necessary in today’s tourism and advertising market, he said.

“It takes money to make money,” Lee said.

Discover DeKalb and Porter Novelli would not identify the 10 “digital influencers” paid to promote the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Lee referred the question to Porter Novelli. Dwayna A. Haley, vice president at Porter Novelli, said it is against company policy to reveal its clients connected to the Cherry Blossom Festival campaign.

“Porter Novelli was given the assignment to conduct the campaign by Discover DeKalb,” she stated in an email.

“The goal of the campaign was to increase overall consumer awareness of Brookhaven as a destination and its annual signature event – the Brookhaven Cherry Blossom Festival. Per our corporate policy, we do not disclose financial or contractual information for our clients,” she added.

One digital influencer identified by Discover DeKalb at a presentation to the Brookhaven City Council at an April 12 work session was Stacie Connerty of Atlanta, who did not respond to a request for comment. Connerty has 172,000 Twitter followers. A few of her Cherry Blossom Festival tweets were retweeted more than 100 times, while others got much lower activity.

On a recent afternoon, about 20 of her tweets covered topics ranging from a local TV station’s investigation of summer camps to chocolate protein shakes to several retweets about the Atlanta Food and Wine Fest. None of those tweets had been retweeted more than four times.

The Federal Trade Commission requires social media influencers to reveal their paid work, including such disclosure statements and requiring their tweets to be identified with a “#ad” hashtag so people know they are being paid to promote a product or event.

Connerty’s tweets during the Cherry Blossom Festival showed she used the #ad hashtag on some tweets and not on others.

Connerty also has a lifestyle blog at that includes a disclosure statement reading, “This blog accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions or other forms of compensation.”

A 2016 story at stated some companies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars every month into “influencer marketing,” according to Captiv8, a company that connects influencers with brands.

Haley of Porter Novelli said “influencer marketing” is becoming more and more popular.

“Influencer marketing is a tool commonly used by brands to leverage the word of mouth halo earned by inspired personalities online,” she said in an email. “From micro-influencers (those with niche, community followings) to celebrities, partnering with influencers helps brands to initiate organic conversation and engagement with consumers while also building awareness.”

Porter Novelli told City Council members that a “Twitter party” on March 22 to promote the festival and using the #CherryFest17 hashtag recorded nearly 123 million Twitter impressions.

Twitter impressions are the total number of timelines tweets are delivered to, but does not mean they are actually read, according to Union Metrics, a firm that specializes in in-depth social media analytics. The county’s stats showed that there were 306 clicks from Twitter to links about the festival from March 13 to March 24.

Katie Williams is the executive director of the Dunwoody Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city of Dunwoody decided in 2008, when it incorporated, to have its own tourism agency and has roughly a $1 million annual budget collected from hotel/motel taxes, she said.

Williams is required, according to city policy, to present quarterly updates to the Dunwoody City Council. Dunwoody city finance staff also handle the CVB’s books, she said. “The city also approves our budget and manages our bookkeeping. We are very transparent,” she said.

Williams said the Dunwoody CVB and Discover DeKalb have a close working relationship. The money Discover DeKalb spends on campaigns, including paying for digital influencers, is a legal use of hotel/motel tax money, she said.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.