E-mails show 'So Gay' ad surprised agency

COLUMBIA --- When an ad campaign appeared in the London Underground promoting South Carolina as a "So Gay" destination for gay and lesbian tourists, the spokesman for the state's tourism agency shared his unease with a colleague.


"I'm praying this little story doesn't jump the pond, especially as the later summer slow news cycle sets in," Marion Edmonds wrote in a July 3 e-mail. "Let's hope that doesn't get picked up by some SC tourist and brought back. It would be a classic case of a picture doing the damage of a thousand words."

His prayer was not answered. The story broke in early July in the blogosphere, then moved into mainstream news reports.

A pile of e-mail printouts at the South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department illustrates the agency's confused response to the ads -- which apparently were approved by a lone employee who might not have even looked at them -- and the media storm that followed.

Freedom of Information requests yielded a 4-inch stack of e-mail and documents dating to 2004.

The communications suggest an agency employee, who since has resigned, decided to spend $4,942.50 from a tourism promotion fund he controlled on the campaign designed to draw South Carolina trip bookings during London Pride, a gay event.

State officials quickly reneged on the decision.

The hundreds of e-mails show the agency's leadership figuring out how and why the ads were running in the first place and hoping the story would blow over.

The same day Mr. Edmonds sent his note to Amy Duffy, the agency's chief of staff, one of Ms. Duffy's longtime friends forwarded an e-mail from an employee who was vacationing in London.

It included pictures from a gay tour promoter's Web site talking up South Carolina's Civil War roots and gay beaches. "Imagine my surprise in seeing this poster in a London Underground station. Who knew?" wrote the employee.

A document from Amro Worldwide, the tour promoter, says the posters along escalators were designed to change attitudes and " 'reclaim' the term 'so gay' as a term that is rendered strongly positive for lesbian and gay people. It also allows gay and lesbian people to feel that the term is being neutered as a negative put down, by portraying 'so gay' as they experience it -- to be a very good thing indeed; for gay consumers and for each destination highlighted."

The Amro Worldwide document, along with images of the proposed poster, were sent to Rand Romaine, the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department's sales manager, by Kirsty Dillury, the agency's contract representative in the United Kingdom, for approval two days before a deadline to include them in the display.

"As you can see the images are very powerful and work well together," Ms. Dillury wrote on May 19. She follows up the next day, pressing Mr. Romaine for approval.

"It's good to go," he replied.

It was the only communication from the agency approving the ad.

None of the e-mail shows Mr. Romaine vetted the ad with agency managers before they first appeared June 27.

Chad Prosser, the state agency head, said he only learned about the ads July 3.

Mr. Romaine, who had worked at PRT since 1996, resigned July 11. Mr. Prosser says it was voluntary. Mr. Romaine did not respond to calls from the AP.