Crisis PR

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Joe Paterno statue

Joe Paterno has been synonymous with Penn State. It will be hard to change that.

Last November, we had some wait and see recommendations on the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal. In the ensuing months, Sandusky has been convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse, and this week, the Louis Freeh investigation results landed on the university like a well-deserved ton of bricks. The report provides extensive documentation of school officials creating a false Sophie’s Choice between protecting the football program or protecting the kids in Sandusky’s Second Mile program.

It is hard to imagine how the reputations of Penn State University, the football program, and Joe Paterno could be damaged if they had dealt with news of Sandusky’s activities at the time they learned of them. While there might have been some initial bad press, no one would have judged the institution and its officials badly because of the acts of a sick individual. Fourteen years and many additional victims later, however, there emerges from the wreckage, a remarkable amount of institutional and personal complicity.

There are two kinds of public relations: the PR that comes from an institution’s own communications with the public via media (including now social media) channels AND the PR that results naturally from being a good local, regional, national, and global citizen.  Penn State needs to start practicing both forms. Immediately.

Here are some overall thoughts on PR via good communications practices and Penn State’s unique situation:

  • Start doing the opposite of what PSU did during this dark period. Hiding things (very bad things) and misrepresenting is what got university officials into so much current trouble. PSU needs to be transparent. Share information, more than less, when asked. Unless a university attorney is advising against making a specific statement (and even then press the point with legal), speak accurately and honestly. The truth shall set you free.
  • The nickname for PR is spin. Although politics is involved, this isn’t about winning a campaign. PSU needs to worry less about putting the worst news in the best possible light and worry more about sharing information that is clear and coherent and factual to the audience it is sharing it with.
  • Make some tough decisions ahead by remembering to put the interests of students first and with a goal of restoring the brand and integrity of the institution. For instance, much of Philadelphia talk radio yesterday was abuzz about what to do with the Paterno statue and his name on the library. Tough calls, but one host made the point that especially in the case of the statue, seeing it is only going to spark immediate associations with the scandal (it isn’t next to a scale of justice statue determining whether all the good outweighs the bad). Also, there is never going to be a consensus opinion about this man, so don’t look for one. Use the prism of what will be best for PSU and its current and future students.
  • There are going to be many other voices on the landscape for  the foreseeable future via the past administrators on trial, the Paterno family, attorneys for all, and of course everyone with even a modest connection to PSU with a strong opinion. Some of this represents the parties involved, but the rest represents the court of public opinion. Avoid being sucked into public battles. In fact, the more that some of the parties involved speak directly or through hired mouthpieces at the moment, the worse they sound.
  • Accept that some events are going to be out of the university’s control (court rulings, NCAA decisions, etc.), so however much that rocks your world, be prepared to accept the results, act on them responsibly, and move on as best you can.

Where Penn State can make a huge difference is by making a huge difference. It is largely too late to make any good come out of this very bad situation. So focus on doing good, day in, day out, on many other fronts.

  • Repair any town and gown fallout locally. This may mean gradually de-emphasizing the football program, which created such an integrated Happy Valley economy by cooperatively helping to create more year-round tourism opportunities to visit State College and surrounding towns. Work to partner with the communities around PSU, so the university isn’t looked upon as an 800 pound gorilla with a football helmet on. Penn State is its own community, but it is interconnected with a wealth of others around it.
  • Beef up academic and social outreach programs that teach and practice ethics and morality in business, government, and daily life, especially those that protect and aid the weakest members of society. It is shocking how so many grown men in this situation could not recognize the right thing to do when the welfare of children was at stake.
  • Renew an emphasis on excellence in everything, by not letting the scandal distract from important current programs and activities that have nothing to do with the Sandusky mess except a Penn State logo. Look for new initiatives locally, nationally, internationally. One example is an ongoing effort — every year, without fail, kids from Penn State visit the Philadelphia area and many other communities to raise funds for children with cancer. They do this with little fanfare. I suspect by the number of students involved, they raise an amazing amount of funds. As a father of a childhood cancer survivor, I will never ever judge PSU as a whole on the basis of this scandal, because of the annual enthusiastic commitment I see from these students.
  • Become Penn State proud again. Don’t let the actions of an unfortunate few define the whole vibrant campus. Look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are going to help many others restore the Penn State name through your own deeds and conduct. Step in when you see a fellow Penn Stater doing something that is going to create a negative impression of the university.

Scandals come and go. The tarnish from this one is not going to easily rub off. But a lot of positive energy over time can diminish the memory of some very bad events and set a course that ensures that something so odious won’t ever happen again. The culture of Penn State needs to change. The university needs new leadership in Old Main and can’t allow itself to be controlled by the gate receipts at Beaver Stadium ever again.

Coda: Ironically, as I finished this post, I received a NYTimes e-alert with a link to this story. There’s no time like the present to begin rebuilding the PSU brand.

 

 

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Adopt-A-Highway is one way to get some outdoor brand exposure and positive PR.

Adopt-A-Highway is one way to get some outdoor brand exposure and positive PR.

There are a lot of ways to contribute to the community and get some positive PR out of it. One that many of us see every day is the official sponsorship of a stretch of roadway under the local highway beautification program. However, this article gave me serious pause about government standards, slippery slopes, and whether every entity is a good candidate for this kind of citizenship initiative.

It’s going to take a lot more than litter clean-up for the Ku Klux Klan to overcome all the negatives associated with it. There’s some very bad history involving lynchings, cross burnings, and mob intimidation. A couple bag-fulls of fast food trash and tossed cigarette butts are not going to overcome people’s memories of racial hate crimes and white supremacy drives. I don’t care what kind of bleach you use in washing your sheets. Not all good PR is capable of overcoming really bad PR.

Interestingly enough, Adopt-A-Highway, the local PA arm of highway cleanup, Sponsor-A-Highway program, has a statement addressing the KKK story out of Georgia. They are obviously concerned about any associations with Grand Wizards, racial intimidation, and highway cleanup. Meanwhile, whenever I am stalled on the Schuylkill Expressway (which is often), I often find myself ruminating on the subject of who is and who isn’t a good sponsor of highway cleanup. For instance, I am often struck by the sign spotlighting Risque Video for their efforts. Of course, I am never stranded in traffic when scantily clad young ladies are out picking up trash on the side of the road. It is always burly looking guys in orange jumpsuits that I see.

Still, highway cleanup is a terrific cause and unless you are long associated with racial strife, most enterprises can benefit greatly from having their names on an outdoor sign heralding their support of this positive effort. It’s been a long time since a first lady focused the nation’s attention on our litter problem, but I will forever appreciate Lady Bird Johnson for helping to stem the trash tide.

Of course, the other association most people have is with this iconic TV commercial featuring a Native American who is profoundly saddened by the way his land is being mistreated.

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This week, after a very bad week of news in Atlantic City, I was reminded of the industry truism, “Good advertising can sell even a bad product. . .Once.” During a major new tourism campaign, “Do AC,” and the another launching the upscale Revel casino,

two Canadian women tourists were stabbed to death in broad daylight on the boardwalk in front of a casino. Thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of these ladies. It didn’t seem possible to make this horror show worse until news broke that the killer was a paranoid schizophrenic homeless woman and that the incident revealed a pattern of other towns around the state dropping their homeless, mentally ill, and prison parolees, a solution nicknamed “Greyhound Therapy.” Could you ask for worse PR in support of your paid advertising efforts?

But while the “Do AC” and the Revel casino campaigns represent good advertising, Atlantic City is NOT a bad product. My wife and I had our favorite wedding anniversary there, with dinner at The Borgata, followed by an amazing Stevie Wonder concert.  Spent portions of various shore vacations there. Annually attend at least one trade show at the Convention Center. Enjoyed dinner at the fabled Knife and Fork. Shopping at the Havana styled Quarter at the Tropicano. Despite this week’s bad press, Atlantic City still has many great things and places and events to offer. According to this account, Governor Christie has concluded the same and is even upping the ante by trying to push for sports betting. Since AC is often compared unfavorably to Las Vegas, this is one small way to level that playing field.

In spite of this horrendous week, Atlantic City will survive, perhaps in large part because of its romanticized past. You couldn’t be farther from the wholesomeness of the Miss America pageant right now; however, there is a mystique of long odds/down-on-the-luck/always the chance of a big win to AC.  Some of it is tied to organized crime, and much of it still ends badly, but hope always springs eternal.

In 1972, Bob Rafelson made “The King of Marvin Gardens” with Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, and Scatman Crothers. This very good scene between Nicholson and Dern turns “It’s Monopoly out there” on its head with “Go directly to jail.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuIIkqrwgHA

Louis Malle captured that spirit in the wonderful Burt Lancaster vehicle, Atlantic City. Here is a truly bad trailer that doesn’t do this exceptional movie justice. The first 10 minutes of the movie does a much better job of hooking viewers. Later in the film, there is a passing reference to Nucky Thompson.

Martin Scorsese and HBO elevated the gangster turned Prohibition politico into a terrific series, Boardwalk Empire. Maybe the folks who recently voted to keep Ocean City dry have been avid watchers and determined that nothing good can come from the business of alcohol, legal or illegal.

Of course, no one has ever captured the criminal and gambler sides of Atlantic City better than Bruce Springsteen in his ode to the town. “Put your makeup on. Fix your hair up pretty. And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

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Latest Facebook movement is on behalf of kids with cancer.

Latest Facebook movement is on behalf of kids with cancer.

As 2012 starts, we are suffering from a dearth of leadership, and the larger the institution or company, the more likely that no one wants to step up and steer the ship. Latest example is Mattel, which has a social media storm developing outside its corporate walls and it is over something that could be turned into such a positive for all and on all levels. If you haven’t heard about the Beautiful and Bald Barbie Facebook page/group, here is a good primer on it. Essentially, someone came up with a brilliantly simple idea to support little girls going through cancer care and attendant hair loss (as well as those whose mothers are) — a Barbie, the universal doll symbol of beauty, minus all her signature golden locks. With every other possible celebrity and situational version of Barbie, it is amazing that Mattel did not think of this themselves, and therein lies the problem. So far, the official response to this Facebook movement is that official corporate policy is to not accept ideas from outside.

I suppose Mattel is grappling with a lot of legal questions as to who owns this idea and how are they compensated on future sales. Incredibly, this story adds another layer — that early last year Mattel custom-produced a bald Barbie for a single little girl undergoing chemo. So, there is even precedence here.

I have a unique perspective on this, being from the PR industry, and having had a child successfully treated for leukemia. A children’s onco ward can be a scary, lonely place and little gestures of caring and kindness go a long way. How can Mattel be so tone deaf — kids with cancer and a chance to do something socially redemptive — it seems like the easiest corporate green light ever.  Where is the downside?

No response to Bald Barbie movement on any Barbie or Mattel pages.

No response to Bald Barbie movement on any Barbie or Mattel pages.

Instead, with the Beautiful and Bald Barbie Facebook page now approaching 100,000 likes, and a lot of negative comments posted about Mattel, the official Mattel and Barbie Facebook pages, apps, and web site pages do not have any responses to this movement. However, you will find this bit of mission statement gobbledygook:

“”Leadership” at Mattel is the ability to develop and communicate a compelling picture of the future that inspires and motivates others to take action. Leaders at Mattel align themselves with Mattel’s core values, exhibit leadership competencies and drive for success in our business strategies. In this way, we will work to achieve our vision, “Creating the Future of Play.” Every day as Mattel’s 30,000 employees worldwide strive to realize that vision, our leadership team is guiding the way.”

Someone on this page at Mattel needs to stop talking about leadership, throw policy manuals out the window, and actually lead.  It’s the smart thing to do, the right thing to do, and the ONLY thing to do.

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The holiday season opened with a very black Black Friday punctuated by pepper spray and other crazed shopping ugliness. Now, it is winding down with a water cooler moment delivered via a lone FedEx driver and YouTube.

If you have yet not seen the clip, taken by the surveillance camera of a customer whose delivery of a Sanyo monitor was shot put over a driveway gate, here it is.

Hard to tell what was going through the driver’s head — a tight timetable that did not correlate with the backlog of packages in his van, class warfare envy that the package recipient lives in a gated home and he doesn’t, the turbo ingredients of his 4th energy drink of the morning. . .could be just about anything. If he has shared those thoughts with FedEx, they have not shared them with the world. Here is a link and a blogpost to FedEx statements since the video has gone viral. They have taken the driver off the streets, reassigning him within the company. That has triggered a secondary PR backlash judging by the posted comments — unemployed capable people are incensed that this clown still has a job at FedEx. Worse, as Corky notes: “No the delivery man isn’t working with customers any more, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t throwing packages around a warehouse somewhere. Most of us would be fired for doing something like that. FedEx, you are hurting your other employees by keeping one who does such public relations damage to your company.”

FedEx, normally the model of reliability and efficiency, has been challenged by the actions of one driver and its own HR policies.

FedEx, normally the model of reliability and efficiency, has been challenged by the actions of one driver and its own HR policies.

So, yes, this delivery man will go through the rest of his life as that crazy Christmas delivery loon. However, the venerable FedEx has managed to make itself look foolish, too, by projecting a mysterious at best, clueless at worst image by responding to this viral video fiasco in a nebulous squishy-HR manner. FedEx made things right with that single customer, then managed to cause everyone else to question management judgment on what appears to be cut and dried grounds for dismissal. FedEx’s statement sounds vague in light of the video —“We do take this matter extremely seriously, and have initiated action in accord with our disciplinary policy, while respecting privacy concerns. Without going into detail, I can assure you that this courier is not delivering customer packages while we are going through this process.”

Just one more example that the people running America’s biggest corporations and institutions don’t understand crisis PR, let alone social media. It is sad when you think about how much money FedEx has invested in positive PR and advertising programs to build brand image. The initial damage done was inflicted by one poor excuse for an employee, but then management has compounded that damage by failing to act decisively to show that such outrageous conduct will not be tolerated.

And on that note, happy holidays and a wonderful and profitable 2012 to all!

Update: This is the 5th time I have had to repost this entry. FedEx lawyers must be working hard through YouTube to get all the viral video clips in the public domain taken down. It is a shame they did not put as much effort into their PR.

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Penn State website is a good place for official announcements on the story.

Penn State website is a good place for official announcements on the story.

Somewhere a new PR text book is being written following early news of the worst collegiate sports, make that collegiate, scandal of all time. Who could have predicted that Penn State University and Joe Paterno could have gone from squeaky clean to skeevy in a matter of days. Heads have rolled, arrests have been made, investigations have been launched, and the rumor mill continues to churn. After what has already been divulged, pretty much nothing is out of the realm of possibility now.

Moment of unity at first PSU football game after the story broke.

Moment of unity at first PSU football game after the story broke.

Fewer and fewer people are leaping to the defense of Joe Paterno because of his apparent lack of action in this scandal, although one who is, NFL great Franco Harris, just lost his spokesperson gig with a western PA casino for his vocal support of JoePa.

Every day, another stunner. The Bob Costas interview with Jerry Sandusky left viewers feeling slimed. Friday, Michael Smerconish’s column in the Inquirer revealed that the university had six months to prepare for this coming storm . It continues to be hard to imagine how you could possibley put any kind of positive spin on charges of pedophilia and cover-ups. As evidenced already, words like “horseplay” don’t cut it.

Only two things have given me pause about  completely rushing to judgment about this debacle. One is the way certain high profile cases, from the Duke lacrosse scandal, to the Amirault day care kangaroo court saga, have turned out far differently than initially reported.

PSU students have created a support wall on campus.

PSU students have created a support wall on campus.

The other is the brilliant Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, in which an incident involving rape and murder is told from four different perspectives, the attacker, the two victims, and a witness. The truth in this case (and every case), when told from different perspectives, can change like shifting sands.

This 1950 world cinema classic deserves regular screenings on the State College campus in the months ahead. It is important to remember that not all that is being reported now is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We owe it to the real victims, the crumbling Second Mile foundation, and every PSU student, faculty member, administrator, alumni, and alumna affected by this outrage.

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Olive Garden has a social media firestorm on its hands.

Olive Garden has a social media firestorm on its hands.

Hell hath no fury like an 80-year-old Kiwanis Club member denied the chance to proudly display the American flag during the Club’s meeting/meal. Just ask the Olive Garden restaurant chain, which is learning unexpected lessons in handling crisis PR and social media wildfires following the incident and subsequent flare-up. Here is a link to one of the original news accounts, which took place at an Alabama location of the restaurant chain, not exactly the heart of PC policy USA.

Once this news hit the local news, it became a sound bite headline that spread nationally to places like the Drudge Report. By the time I saw the story, the Comments section on the page was loaded with angry posters, many of them Facebook commenters, who had already decided they were done eating another meal at ANY Olive Garden. What struck me was the explosion of the myth that social media, is wholly owned and operated by Generation Y. This is not your son’s (or grandson’s) Facebook network anymore. There are Hank Williams Jr. lookalikes looking like they just got the opportunity to defiantly stick it to ESPN. There are grandmothers forming a solidarity movement with the Kiwanis Club lady. The common theme was that an American corporation had knowingly decided to tread on Old Glory (or at least banish it from their premises) and each poster was weighing in as a former customer (with plans to virally make family and friends former customers as well). Ouch. Some posters noted that Olive Garden is part of a larger restaurant group and they named the other affiliated restaurant chains. The potential for business damage here remains huge.

Many Olive Garden customers are angry over the flag incident.

Many Olive Garden customers are angry over the flag incident.

At this point, I visited the Olive Garden Facebook page and corporate’s web site home page. Both contained the following explanation/apology intended to contain the damage and assure customers that this was not corporate policy and it truly was an isolated, unfortunate incident brought about by one manager or staffer acting in the absence of policy.

Official Olive Garden response to the "flag" incident.

Official Olive Garden response to the "flag" incident.

The following day, Olive Garden announced to the news media that the CEO would be personally apologizing to the Kiwanis lady. Given the heat and the fury out there, I suspect neither of these steps individually or together will be enough to undo the damage.

Lots of "tweets" about Olive Garden after the "flag" incident, too.

Lots of "tweets" about Olive Garden after the "flag" incident, too.

I predict that Olive Gardens will have to start couponing deals like crazy to win back lost customers and flying a flag twice the size of the ones at Perkins Pancake Houses outside all locations. This isn’t a case of isolated anecdotes about bad service or a cold meal. It is much more visceral and hits at the heart of American culture and patriotism. It isn’t clear what the decision-maker at the Alabama Olive Garden was thinking, but the default corporate answer to most such “special” requests these days is “No.” Sometimes the perpetual worry about offending “someone” clouds your ability to see you might wind up offending “nearly everyone.”

Does anyone still doubt the power of social media, especially when triggered by news media? Does anyone want to bet against civics lessons being added to corporate managerial training at every restaurant chain and retailer in America after this?

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This week’s post theme song is brought to you by Wilco. Also, two pretty well-known companies named Facebook and Burson-Marsteller.  You may not be familiar with the latter, but it happens to be one of the biggest and most respected firms in the PR field. While online privacy continues to be a hot button issue, incredibly Facebook used the matter as a cudgel to whack rival Google over social media turf wars. Burson-Marsteller allowed itself to be used as the messenger to plant the story via a tech blog without revealing who had hired them. What’s worse, the charge appears to be about activities Facebook was engaged in themselves.

There are plenty of accounts like this one about the nefarious deed and most of them read like inside baseball about the way Facebook and Google manage/leverage the privacy of their zillions of users. Increasingly, it is clear there are two eight hundred pound gorillas in the digital world and they don’t like sharing with each other. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s scooping up of Skype looks like an act of attention-grabbing desperation. More examples of mega corporations growing fat and stupid and ceasing to care about their many users. Where is the focus on innovation, new products, and exclusive benefits?

Anyone who has watched The Social Network should not be surprised that brilliant Mark Zuckerberg can also be vengeful Mark Zuckerberg. The aspect of this story that is most troubling to me, however, is Burson-Marsteller’s monumental lapse in judgment.

PR firms are trusted counselors and when they start acting like minions scurrying to do the bidding of Dr. Evil, it is time for self-flagellation. Public relations is all about taking positive messages to the market place, or when there are genuine problems, helping clients put the bad news in the best possible light (spin control if you will).  When a client asked you to anonymously badmouth a competitor, all the internal alarm bells should go off at once.

A few days ago, I came across this devastating piece of satire about my profession in ultimate humor site, The Onion —

“PR Firm Kills Innocent Child

‘Kills is a Harsh Word,’ Spokesperson Says.”

I thought it a little over the top that The Onion considered it not a stretch for public relations execs to murder a child in the park, then mount an upbeat campaign to downplay the crime. That was a few days ago. Ouch!

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Michael Vick is redefining himself and the concept of athlete as role model.

Michael Vick is redefining himself and the concept of athlete as role model.

Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, is in the midst of an amazing run, rewriting NFL record books, making a strong case for his team as SuperBowl contender, but also testing every fan’s personal standard for forgiveness. Last Sunday, my pastor, with his tongue-firmly-in-cheek, gave a sermon noting that it is a lot easier to forgive Michael Vick when he is winning.
The Vick saga is an amazing arc of highs, lows, and now highs again. Ironically, Vick seems to trigger a visceral reaction, even now, among a significant portion of the population, those who own and love dogs. Animal cruelty is an especially heinous crime and one that is hard for people to fathom. Ironically, those on the long list of athletes who mistreat women are judged less harshly over time.
But Michael Vick was not alone in his transgressions. It was an unholy mess of family and friends running a seedy sports betting business built around dog fighting, to include dog torturing and dog killing. However, Vick was substantially and personally involved enough to be found guilty, stripped of his lucrative NFL contract and career, and sent to prison. Having done hard time, last year, he was given something most of us never get — a well defined second chance at the brass ring. To Vick’s credit, he has largely made the most of that opportunity, and in a way that challenges people to rethink how they judge him specifically, and others in general.
Vick has raised his athleticism and QB skills to an incredible level. He has been generous toward spreading offensive opportunities among his teammates. He has also been gracious in recent interviews. There hasn’t been a hint of vindictiveness toward detractors. He seems to exhibit a quality all of us claim to value, but its appearance is so rare that we seldom know how to react to it. Vick understands personal accountability. He knows that he was ultimately responsible for his own downfall and he went to prison for it. Even after paying that price, he does not appear to be embittered by the experience. Instead, he has been motivated to become a better person and (gasp) a role model. Today, he makes time to speak to students and others about his experience and why animal cruelty is so wrong.
Although I am an Eagles fan, I would love to see Vick continue his amazing personal turnaround even if he were helming the Cowboys (blasphemy). What a powerful message to send to people of all ages. That we are all human, capable of horrendous mistakes, but also of turning things around by working hard and changing course.
That brings me to my original premise, which is the tipping point at which personal redemption adds up to regained advertising endorsement contracts. My pastor and pigskinlovinglady.com reveal that I am late to the party on this subject. However, I would also like to suggest a seemingly outrageous endorsement op — Michael Vick and any major dog food company. It would be an instant buzz generator (fiercely argued about on both sides). Alpo, once long and successfully associated with Lorne Greene because of his Bonanza popularity, could tell a different story of image and reality with Michael Vick as endorser. PetSmart could show how smart they are at leveraging media moments by signing a controversial spokesperson. That’s quite a chance for big corporations to take, but Michael Vick could sweeten the deal, by donating his earnings from the contract to the SPCA. Good things can come out of even the worst of circumstances. You just have to work hard to make them happen.

Update: Michael Vick has his first endorsement deal and it’s not dog food!

Update 2: This is what I meant by Vick provoking visceral reactions. Here is a well-stated opposing opinion from one of Newton Associates’s friends, Lonny Strum, an experienced consultant, a knowledgeable sports fan, and a customer (former) of the car dealership that has Michael Vick at the center of its new ad campaign. It underscores the risk of nearly every celebrity endorsement deal and why Vick is riskier than most. This is why nearly everything Vick does of this nature needs to be balanced with a charitable component.

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Duck Tours

Duck Tours

Some times it is fun to learn what is going on at home when you’re on vacation. That was not the case last week, while in Boston with my family. We were grabbing lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant when my oldest son looked up at the TV and noticed a scene from Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing waterfront area featured on CNN. The story was about the sinking of a Ride the Ducks tourist amphibious vehicle following a collision with a barge. Ironically, at that moment, my wife was on her cell calling the Boston version of this attraction to get information on departures later that day.
Needless to say, this story resonated with my family the rest of the week. We had all taken the Philadelphia tour the other year and enjoyed it a lot. Even though, we were familiar with all the on land sites, it was fun to see them from a new perspective and the 20 minutes or so in the Delaware River was a view of our city we’d never seen before. Throw in the plastic “quackers” and the fun Philly music favorites played on the Ducks’ speakers and you had a winning outing for all ages. We were more than interested in repeating the experience in Boston.
For awhile the story seemed to get better. Initially, it sounded as if all the passengers were rescued and that those who were had not been seriously injured. Then, news came that two passengers were unaccounted for. As time wore on, hope began to fade and eventually the bodies of 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old man from a Hungarian church group touring the states were recovered. A sad riverside memorial service on Saturday indicates that the thoughts and prayers of many in the city go out to the families of Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem.
Reading the detailed accounts in the Philadelphia Inquirer answered most of our questions as to how this tragedy could have happened. This tidal section of the Delaware River is a major shipping channel, and although the tourist boats stay close to shore, unforeseen circumstances such as this can bring them into harm’s way when motor trouble occurs. Making matters worse, the barge was being powered from the other side by a tugboat attached near the rear. There was evidently no visual recognition that the stranded duck tour vehicle was even in the barge’s path.
One surprising revelation came from Chris Edmonston, Director of Boating Safety at the Boat US Foundation. He noted that a Pennsylvania rule that requires children 12 and younger to wear life jackets applies only to recreational vessels. Commercial vessels must have enough life vests for everyone on board, but passengers are not required to wear them. This tragedy could spur a change in that regulation. From passenger accounts, it sounded as if things went from minor problem to full-blown chaos very quickly. Plus, if we should have learned one thing from the current BP rig disaster it’s that we must never forget Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” A corollary to that might be that “No matter how many contingencies we plan for, there will always be another one that we didn’t plan for.”

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

That might be why the very next day after Philadelphia’s tragedy, the streets of Boston were still active with so many of their own Ducks tours. The ones I saw were all filled with eager tourists. Either they hadn’t heard the sad news

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

from the Delaware River or they didn’t believe in lightning striking twice.
From a PR and marketing perspective, I guess this all makes sense. The Ride the Ducks tour company seemed to be taking appropriate steps. The President flew up from Atlanta to Philadelphia and made himself accessible to address questions promptly. Not sure that Boston’s duck tours are run by the same company, but regardless, all their livelihoods depend on making tourism fun. You just hope they will incorporate everything they learn from the Philadelphia tragedy into standard operating procedures going forward to also make tourism safe. Improvements that might prevent future tragedies are the least that should be done in memory of Dora and Szabolcs.

Historical Footnote: Peter Binzen writing for The Inquirer has an interesting bittersweet personal account about usage of the Ducks in WWII in Italy.

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