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Knowing your history sometimes can pay off in public relations.

Although 35 years have passed, the mock “secession” — and resulting founding of Key West’s “Conch Republic” — remains a classic example of turning a potential disaster into an opportunity.

When the U.S. Border Patrol established a surprise roadblock on U.S. Highway 1 at the entrance to the Florida Keys, trapping tourists as well as drug runners and alien smugglers, Keys tourism and government officials went ballistic.

Key West had refused to join the Confederacy; I suggested that this time the city should secede from the Union.

In response to a call from the city’s mayor to “do something before the tourist business collapses,” I remembered an incident from the Keys’ history during the Civil War when Key West refused to join the rest of Florida in the Confederacy and proclaimed allegiance to the Union. The real reason: a garrison of Union troops was stationed at Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West.

Harking back 150 years, I suggested that this time the city should secede from the Union. The mayor was shocked until I explained it would be a mock secession. The Key Westers, who love nothing more than a reason to throw a party, caught on quickly and came up with the Conch Republic, and the rest is history.

The spoof attracted national and even international media attention, and a sheepish Border Patrol folded up its roadblock at midnight.

Not only the wire services and U.S. networks, but even BBC television covered the event, which lives on today in an annual Conch Republic Independence Day anniversary celebration that has become a significant tourist draw for the Southernmost City.

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