Days after tragedy struck in Tucson, officials at the region's largest economic-development agency started seeking answers to a question that hung over them like a storm cloud.
How would a deadly shooting spree at a Safeway store, an incident highly publicized around the world, affect Southern Arizona's reputation as a desirable place for companies to do business?
For advice, officials at Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc., better known as TREO, turned to business leaders in Oklahoma City, scene of a 1995 domestic-terrorism bombing that killed 168 people and wounded nearly 700.
"Something like this can change the way people think about your community," said Cynthia Reid of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.
Tucson and Oklahoma City officials talked about how a single, horrific incident can change the perception of a place, Reid said.
Her advice: Be patient, and accentuate the positive.
"It's important to keep marketing your community and not stop because this happened," she said.
It's especially crucial "to not dwell on the incident from a negative perspective, but focus on the good things the people of Tucson have done to come together, and make that part of your message."
On Thursday, in response to such advice, TREO issued a talking-points memo to its members, urging them to adopt a "business as usual" tone if potential customers or investors inquire about the massacre that killed six people and injured 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
TREO's board of directors held "a thorough discussion about the potential impacts of the shootings on Tucson's image as a business center," said the memo, e-mailed to about 475 businesses and individuals.
"We believe that as a strong advocate for economic development, Congresswoman Giffords would want us to keep moving forward to attract companies and jobs to our region, even during this difficult time," the memo said.
TREO President Joe Snell said in an e-mail interview that it's his agency's job to "pay careful attention to the image and perception of our region.
"Crime and safety are important attributes to businesses looking to invest millions in a community. We want to ensure our clients and partners know that these situations can, and do, happen anywhere and do not reflect the people, work force and talent we have here."
Local marketing experts say that while TREO's "business as usual" wording could be construed by some as crass so soon after the tragedy, the agency has the right idea with its effort to minimize economic fallout.
"I do have a little concern that it could be perceived as a little insensitive, but I think the intention is great," said Yong Liu, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Arizona's business school.
One of Liu's specialties is studying how negative publicity affects major firms such as Toyota, for example, when vehicles are recalled for safety issues. He sees "a lot of similarities" between such cases and what Tucson faces.
Research shows that the public looks for signals when trying to process negative events, he said.
In Tucson's case, he said, what transpired after the shootings - the groundswell of sympathy and support for victims, the heroics of citizens at the scene, the top-notch medical care of the wounded - may actually leave the city with a better image in the eyes of corporate America.
Sidney Levy, another UA marketing professor, agreed.
Much of the publicity over the shootings "emphasized that while there may be a million people in the valley, Tucson still is a small community with a lot of friendliness to it," Levy said.
The fact is, Levy said, "horrible events happen, but people have to go on and build their lives as constructively as possible."
Even so, local business leaders would be wise not to "expect too much, too soon," said Reid, of the Oklahoma City Chamber.
Tucson "is going to go through a period of depression," she predicted.
After the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, many citizens hunkered down and stopped spending money. Sales-tax revenues fell. "We had car dealers who said they didn't sell a car for months," Reid recalled.
Recovery "takes patience," she said.
"Having an experience like this in your community is a process. You can't change it or fix it or make it go away.
"Learning what it means for your community, that just takes time."
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4138.