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Mississippi Creating a New Image

By Bob Pittman
March/April 2007
South Mississippi Scene
It was August of 2005 and the nation’s worst natural disaster crushed the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Could anything good come out of Hurricane Katrina?
As tragic as the human and physical losses have been, something very good has emerged from the storm that rained death and destruction along the coast.
Rick Looser noticed it quickly. The Jackson-based public relations executive observed that, for the first time, perhaps, the nation is seeing Mississippi as it really is. And that’s very good.
“The nation has seen our courage, our determination to overcome the hurricane, our compassion for the victims of the storm,” said Looser.” Americans are seeing us, perhaps for the first time, as we really are. And there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to this developing new image of Mississippi.”
Looser, Chief Operating Officer of the Jackson-based Cirlot Agency, one of the state’s best known marketing, corporate communications, and public relations agencies, gives great credit to the residents of Mississippi and to Governor Haley Barbour in particular, for the changing image of the state.
Ironically, the storm that placed Mississippi in the national spotlight came about the same time the Cirlot Agency was launching its “Mississippi, Believe It!” national media campaign.
The campaign, designed to change the American public’s too often negative attitude about Mississippi, has been incredibly successful.
“The national media has been fascinated by the campaign,” Looser reported. On the day of his interview with South Mississippi Scene, Looser was preparing for a visit to the state by a four-member crew from the New York-based “Today” show on national television. The “Today” crew, he beamed, was coming to take a look at the “new Mississippi.”
The “Mississippi, Believe It!” campaign, which has involved public and private schools in the state, was launched by Looser after he was seated next to a 12-year-old boy from Connecticut on a plane from Washington to Jackson.
When the boy learned that Looser was a Mississippian he asked, “Do you see the Ku Klux Klan on your streets every day, and do you hate all black people?”
“Here was an articulate, private school-educated child, and that was his mental image of Mississippi,” Looser stressed.
“The next day we pulled out our ideas and began formulating the plan to create the “Mississippi Believe It!” campaign.
The campaign, totally funded by the Cirlot Agency and Service Printers of Flowood, has just begun its second year. The public relations campaign has both an in state and a national emphasis.
In state, the key element is a poster program that has been spread into every public and private school in the state. In the first year, 11 posters went to every school; three additional posters have been distributed to every school, kindergarten through college, in the past few weeks.
The eye-catching posters are incorporated into teachers’ lesson plans. They carry such intriguing themes as “Yes, we can read; a few of us can even write.” That poster identifies Mississippi’s greatest writers, including William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and others of that stature.
Another poster declares, “Yes, we wear shoes; a few of us even wear cleats.” The cleats on the poster are worn by Jerry Rice, Brett Favre, Steve McNair, and the late Walter Payton, all Mississippi-born stars of the National Football League.
A third poster reads, “No black, no white; just the blues.” World famous blues stars as B.B. King, W.C. Handy and Muddy Waters, among others, are identified as Mississippians on the plaque.
The Cirlot Agency has contributed over $300,000 to the campaign and Service Printers has donated some $40,000 in goods and services. The effort has generated positive media coverage of more than $15 million for the state.
A native of Alabama, Looser, a public relations graduate of the University of Alabama, met Mississippian Liza Cirlot, a native of Moss Point, at a convention of public relations and advertising professionals in Baton Rouge.
“I spotted Liza that evening across the room, signaled a photographer to follow me, then walked across the room, asked Liza to allow the photographer to take our picture, then told her we would save the photo for our children.
“Eighteen months later we were married.”
Liza Cirlot was already in the public relations business in Jackson, having opened the agency with $78.
The Cirlot Agency today has 25 staff members and is known nationwide.
While the poster program is designed to inform Mississippians as to the virtues and values of the state, Looser emphasizes the benefits that have arisen out of the wreckage of the hurricane.
“First,” he said, “the nation has seen the courage and determination of our people and we have gained national respect.  In addition, the nation has been favorably impressed with  the leadership of Governor Haley Barbour. He has reminded the people of President Reagan with his personal concern for the storm victims and with his courageous and encouraging leadership.”
Looser added, “most importantly, volunteers who have come to Mississippi form across the country to help in the rebuilding effort, have seen the character and determination of our people and thousands have returned to their homes telling others about their new appreciation of Mississippi and Mississippians. That is invaluable to us.”
Looser, who maintains a personal interest in and directs the national campaign said “Working from the outside in, Mississippi can’t sit idly by and let others define who we are. We have to be aggressive in promoting ourselves, continue to break down old stereotypes while embracing our heritage. From the inside out, we must continue to address those things that make us first on every bad list and last on every good list.”
The Mississippi campaign has already won national recognition for the campaign and for the Cirlot Agency. It has been awarded the prestigious Gold Quill Award and has received other national awards from public relations and advertising agencies.
“Mississippi, Believe It!” has won the attention of the national media, has inspired school children across the state, and has Mississippians themselves believing Mississippi; just the way Rick and Lisa Looser dreamed it could happen