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Case Study: Texas A&M Bonfire Crisis of 1999

In my college case studies in public relations course, we learned the five steps of a crisis: detection, prevention, preparation, containment and recovery.

We studied a crisis situation at Texas A&M that I’d like to share in the parameters of the five steps of the crisis.

A little background information: Texas A&M had put on a bonfire for 90 years. The bonfire represented the Aggie’s burning determination to defeat its archrival, commonly called “T.U.” or the University of Texas at Austin. The tradition began in 1909, when students ignited a pile of trash gathered on the spur of the moment in anticipation of the game with UT.

In keeping with the 90-year-old tradition, 58 people were working to construct the fourth tier of the bonfire stack during the early morning hours of November 18, 1999. The stack of approximately 5,000 logs collapsed, killing 11 people and sending 28 to area hospitals. One of the injured later passed, bringing the total number killed in the incident to 12. News of the incident was internationally known.

Preparation: A 32-page “Bonfire Briefing Book” that detailed history, precautions, maps, charts and diagrams for erecting the 55-foot tall, 45-foot wide log monument was made available. Also, a new media relations director Cynthia Lawson had arrived only 5 months before the situation.

Detection: There were four prodromes: 1) A student had been killed in 1955 by a truck preparing for the bonfire (called First Bonfire Hero, not victim); 2) Logs had collapses previously in 1957; 3) In 1981, an Aggie was killed when thrown from a tractor and crushed to death; 4) In 1994, logs shifted and the bonfire had to be rebuilt.

In 1972, regulations were implemented: on number of logs, times students could work on the bonfire (not at night) and the students must be supervised at all times.

Prevention: Lawson had been proactive in that she became close with the head of Chamber of Commerce Royce Hickman (gaining community support), who organized food for volunteers and masseurs for weary workers following the collapse.

Relationships with media outlets, both locally and nationally, also paid off for Lawson and A&M.

Containment: On that tragic night in 1999, a member of the Critical Incidence Response Team that was at the scene, called Lawson right after the collapse. She didn’t know there were deaths, but she called a small number of people in her office immediately and headed for the site.

There was a Crisis Communications Plan in place, but it was vague. It was a one-page document advising personnel of the critical nature of effective communication during a crisis: be honest, be accurate and do not speculate. Fortunately, Lawson drew from her own experiences in crisis communications.

One clear voice helped a lot at A&M. At universities, it could easily become a frenzy of everyone having something to say. At A&M, everyone deferred questions to Lawson and her office, which helped in controlling the message.

To keep control of the media frenzy, Lawson told media she would report new information ever hour and kept true to her promise.

Recovery: In the end, reports said faulty construction and unsupervised students working was the cause of the accident. Some media tried to say horseplay and drinking was involved, but A&M didn’t want to respond to negative news stories, so as not to interfere with the Commission’s investigation.

A Texas A&M Bonfire Memorial was constructed at the sport where the Bonfire collapsed. It’s lighted around its perimeter at night with an amber glow and the path leading to the “Spirit Ring” begins with a representation of the first bonfire. Bronze inside the portals and on each of the 27 granite stones represent the individuals killed and injured in the accident.

    Lawson utilized internal channels:
  • Established hotline (PMT) and website for students and parents
  • Personally visited families before she talked to the media
  • A&M’s PBS television station, KAMU-TV was at the site to provide coverage
  • A candlelight vigil was planned
  • Student newspaper, the Battalion, was used to list names of deceased and other soft-news stories
  • All information, memos and other pertinent information was made available to news outlets via the university library
  • PMTs were sent out to parents via phone calls, visits or letters to get information out about funeral arrangements, lodging, hospital bills, information about the Bonfire Commission, etc.
    There were four things that were important for Lawson to convey in the media:
  1. Concern for the parents of the deceased and injured students
  2. Explanation of specifics of tradition; wanted everyone to understand what the tradition meant to A&M
    • Tradition is capitalized in A&M publications. The bonfire was part of A&M culture – alumni and community members came back every year for the ceremonial burning of the monument (VERY IMPORTANT TO AGGIES). After the collapse, students who had been injured and parents of those who passed still wanted the tradition to continue.
  3. Facts about the accident – real details that left no room for speculation
  4. Communicate what Aggie spirit is and the “specialness” of the A&M family

Lawson did a good job containing the crisis and knew her publics well. Her objectives were to educated publics on fact of the crisis, to inform publics of the “Aggie spirit” and tradition, to inform publics of deep sadness for those lost and to reinforce positive attitudes of A&M. She incorporated the media, opinion leaders, special events, a website and was an excellent spokesperson.

The only negative part of Lawson’s plan was that some of her staff felt left out during the incident and didn’t know what to do at times. One of the most important roles of a plan is often overlooked – everyone has a valued role in the communications process. Before a crisis occurs, make sure each person knows what his or her role will be and how important that role is in the management of a crisis.

- Sarah

The Importance of Carefully Crafted Messages

In August 2012, Progressive Insurance found itself in a public relations crisis based on the inability to effectively craft its crisis messages.

A Progressive Insurance customer was killed in a car accident and the other driver’s insurance policy did not cover the full cost of expenses with which her family was left. The family approached Progressive to cover the difference based on the insurance policy into which their daughter had paid through the years. Progressive did not agree to pay the difference and because of Maryland law, the family could not sue Progressive. Instead, they were forced to take the other driver to court, try to prove his negligence, and then present that information to Progressive to persuade them to pay what was owed.

According to the family of the woman killed, a Progressive Insurance lawyer then represented the other driver in the case in an attempt to win the case and avoid paying the policy difference that was owed.

Let the social media frenzy ensue. The brother of the woman killed in the car accident took to his Tumblr account and posted this post with the headline “My sister paid Progressive Insurance to defend her killer in court.”

The headline in and of itself is enough to cause a public relations nightmare and the detailed description of what happened supports his claim. The post had more than 10,000 shares on Tumblr and the public reacted negatively on other social media outlets as well. Most notable were Twitter comments to Progressive Insurance’s account.

As Schroder PR would advise if Progressive were our client, the insurance firm posted a statement on the platform on which the conversation was active. It tweeted, “This is a tragic case, and our sympathies go out to Mr. Fisher and his family for the pain they’ve had to endure. We fully investigated this claim and relevant background, and we feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations.”

While the platform was appropriate, the message was not. In a public relations crisis, it is imperative to know your audience well so that messages are crafted accordingly, and delicately. Progressive’s defense that it was within its “contractual obligations” may have been appropriate in a courtroom, but not on Twitter and not addressed to a concerned public. Progressive’s wording shrouded its statement in a cold, insincere and offensive tone.

I can only attribute what happened next to poor planning. If you view Progressive Insurance’s Twitter account, @Progressive, you will see a row of headshots and names of their “Twitter Team” that monitors the account. In a quiet period, this might be a great approach for a large company to take: To let the public know you intend to be transparent and want to be personal in conversations. However, Progressive’s next crisis move contradicted that assumption.

Progressive responded to dozens of tweets directed at them with identical responses. This only enhanced the cold and insincere tone it had already conveyed. The automated messages led to a backlash against the company, which included another public relations nightmare – parodies. This recording made by Whil Wheaton, former Star Trek actor, was played more than 21,000 times accentuating the robotic responses that Progressive provided to individuals.

I would prefer to think there was a lapse in judgment when Progressive issued these robotic Twitter replies. Perhaps they didn’t have a crisis plan in place and someone made a poor, snap decision to respond to the messages automatically, with the same response.

I think a firm that presents itself with a well-thought-out, transparent and personal Twitter introduction would surely have a crisis plan that included a social media strategy. If it did, it certainly would not say, “reply to personal concerns with automated responses.”

In a crisis, messaging is a very delicate subject matter. With the advent of social media, it has an enormous influence and, in this case, it may even have created the crisis. A well-researched and strategic crisis plan can prevent such social media missteps.

I am sure that Progressive Insurance deals with claims such as this one on a daily basis – it is the nature of its business. While it may not have predicted that this case would be the one to spark such a controversy, it should have predicted that some future case would. And with that prediction, if its crisis plan included guidelines for creating sincere, audience-appropriate and strategic messages, it wouldn’t have suffered such a bruising experience in the worldwide spotlight.


Crisis Communications via Michael Scott

The Season 3 episode of The Office, titled “Product Recall” is both hilarious and an exceptional example of what not to do in a crisis situation. The episode begins with Michael Scott outlining the crisis situation at hand – an “obscene” watermark had been printed on paper shipments sent to clients and both the clients and the clients’ customers were offended and unhappy.

The first thing that Michael does is assemble the office in the conference room to discuss the situation. Assembling the crisis team is of course the first step in a crisis plan, but true to character, Michael’s implementation was flawed. The meeting is unproductive (aren’t all of his meetings?) and valuable time is wasted. A crisis team should be carefully selected and in most cases, will not include everyone at the office in order to be efficient.

Michael’s next step is delegating the task to Kelly of training the accounting department on customer service calls in order for the company to spread their manpower where it’s needed most. He has the goal spot on, but his strategy is completely wrong.

“I wonder how many calls you’re missing teaching us to answer calls?” Oscar said to Kelly. “I know right?” Kelly said very gleefully.

A crisis is no time for employee training. Employees should be trained regularly to handle a crisis situation so that when one arises – one will at some point – employees can be readily available to carry out the strategic crisis plan.

Michael’s next plan of action is based on another misconception in crisis communications: “Here’s the thing, when a company screws up, the best thing to do is to call a press conference, alert the media and you control the story, wait for them to find out, and the story controls you,” he said.

Mostly wrong. Yes, it is important to be proactive and cooperative with print and broadcast media when those are the best ways to communicate with your constituents for the crisis. However, alerting the media every time your company “screws up” isn’t advisable. There are often other means of communication that are more effective in a crisis than print and broadcast media.

The “press conference” that Michael holds for a reporter from the Scranton Times is staged so that Michael presents a large check (he really loves those) to a client and apologizes. Being staged and dramatic is the least of this press conference’s public relations worries. The client refuses the check, storms out as Michael yells at her and the reporter is seen scribbling away on his notepad – whereas he had previously looked pretty dormant with his interest in the story.

In this case, Michael made matters worse by contacting the media and planning something elaborate. So in his attempt to minimize that damage, he resorted to his favorite means of communication – his video diary. He closed his video diary with a thought that reporters dream of for a headline: “If I could leave you with one thought,” he said, “remember it wasn’t me.”

Comments like that one are strongly discouraged.

Michael had the basic outline of what to do in a crisis situation but his implementation is where he fell short. While this episode is a fun anecdote for what not to do in a crisis situation, it should be noted that he did do some things sort-of right. And if Michael Scott can get some things right, that means smart businesses can get things just as wrong.


Crisis 101

Before you can begin to confine crises, you must first understand the basics of crisis communication.

First, the response to crisis must be managed, because external influences cannot be managed. I learned in school that response management depends on the practitioner’s thorough understanding of three things:

  1. The public and political environment in which the crisis is occurring.
    • What each public values
  2. The culture and inner workings of the organization facing the crisis.
    • Who are the stakeholders? What’s the reputation?
    • You need to do your research on the organization.
  3. Human nature – how will the persons/groups involved most likely react to the crisis itself, to attempts to alleviate it and to various communications, events or activities?
    • What are the chances crises will happen? What will impact be?

Public relations efforts in a crisis should focus on opinion leaders – the 8 percent who can influence the 90 percent. Resist the temptation to capitalize on the zealots who support your view. They anger people on both sides of the issue, including those inclined to agree with them.

Look for opinion leaders at all levels of society. They aren’t always educated or articulate, but they are familiar and trustworthy. Most of us are inclined to seek reinforcement for our choices from people who are in the same situation as us, not from those who are “different.”

According to Maslow, when people feel that physical needs and safety needs are threatened, they are prone to panic. In panic, people’s basic instincts for survival take command. This “survival” might be physical, financial, social or some other component vital to a person’s life – you can count on self-interest or self-preservation to take command of a person’s emotions and actions!

    There are four types of crises:
  1. Acts of God (storms, earthquakes, volcanic action, etc.)
  2. Mechanical problems (ruptured pipes, metal fatigue, etc.)
  3. Human error (miscommunication on what to do, wrong valve opened)
  4. Management decisions, actions or inaction (“The problem is not that serious:” “No one will find out.”)

Most crises fall in the last category and are the result of management not taking action when they were informed about a problem that eventually would grow into a crisis. (Sounds like the plot to several Hollywood blockbusters … )

Depending on the amount of warning time, crises fall into two categories: sudden crisis and smoldering crisis.

As the name suggests, a sudden crisis comes without warning – an employee injury, death of a key executive, oil spill, product tampering, etc. A smoldering crisis is generally not known either internally or externally until if goes public and generates negative news coverage. These problems are operational or organizational weaknesses, bad practices or other discoverable or predictable “bombs” waiting to explode.

The ability to communicate trustworthy information, whether directly or via the media, is a measure of a practitioner’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Trust MUST precede information.


Suddenly our presentation on crisis management came to life as reporters and helicopters surrounded our client's property.

Since I was still in my first month as an account coordinator with Schroder PR, I jumped on the chance to tag along to a presentation last Friday. It was a crisis presentation being presented during an employee-training day for a client. Little did I know, the day held a larger lesson on crisis communications than what was included in the PowerPoint.

We entered the presentation room at 10 a.m., where around 100 of the client’s employees sat with their choice from the continental breakfast bar and listened to a presentation on worker’s comp.  I could see in the listener’s faces that this would be an easy act to follow. The speaker closed, the room applauded, and the attendees scurried out for a recess while Chris Schroder and Mary Nevaire Marsh prepared. I grabbed an open seat in the front, next to the client, and waited for the show to begin.

At 10:30 on the dot, it was show time. Since I had taken a case studies course in college on crisis communications, I anticipated this presentation to be primarily a review. However, I quickly realized this presentation had a credibility my professors did not: Someone that had dealt with crisis communications. Chris, a former reporter and editor, explained to the audience how to deal with media from an informed perspective on what the media is looking for when they ask questions.

The presentation was going swimmingly. The room nodded to agree on several occasions and I joined them with a look of, “that’s a great point, why have I never thought of that?” on more occasions. The laughter was on cue and audience participation was abundant. I was enjoying the group-participation exercise – in which a member of the audience is put in front of a camera and asked prospective questions from a reporter on a crisis situation that the audience creates in an improv setting – when the client tapped me on the shoulder.

As he leaned in and covered his mouth with his hand, he said, “You aren’t going to believe the irony, but I have to leave because a ‘situation’ has come up. Please tell Chris to call me as soon as he finishes the presentation.”

I took his number down and watched him leave as the audience roared with laughter from the improv exercise. I can’t tell you what was on the last three slides because I was busy playing possible crisis scenarios in my head, but after the last one had been put on the projector and the audience applauded, I knew it was go time. The first chance I got, I relayed the information.

We left the Georgia World Congress Center and called the client from the car. He was slightly flustered as he explained the incident that had his leaving early. He was on-site at one of his building properties where a shooting had taken place nearby. As he named off the media outlets that were already on the scene – including TV trucks and overhead helicopter – we agreed to join him on-site.

I felt as if I had just gotten my first police respondent call over a police radio. Chris scanned the radio stations in the car and we listened for reports on the incident. We all took to our smart phones and iPads and scrolled through the news headlines, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages to see what stories had broken. With our quick car research and our other team member at the office sending updates, we arrived to the scene informed and prepared to take action.

I watched Chris exchange business cards with the media personnel on the scene and he promised to be back in touch as soon as possible with a statement. As Mary Nevaire and I got an update from the client based on the preliminary police findings, we typed out two statements – one for the media and one for our client’s email list. The incident had virtually no relation to the client except for proximity. A nearby home invasion resulted in three people being shot by the homeowner and the perpetrators escaped in a car that crashed adjacent to our client’s property. Initial media reports erroneously identified our client’s property as the scene of the botched home invasion.

At first, I thought like the client, “This really doesn’t have to do with us so why try to tie ourselves in?” But Chris thought otherwise.

He explained the importance of being proactive and accurate. Since the incident had little to do with the client, we had to be proactive and ensure that the media was accurate in conveying this. We also had to make sure we took advantage of the positive opportunities that were presented to us: it was one of our client’s security officers who had chased and rounded up the suspects in the incident.

The PowerPoint presentations’ ideas were in full swing as we followed up with the appropriate media based on the new information. We ensured that the media had accurate information and presented our client as an additional, obliging source, should he be needed. We then carried out our obligations to the client’s constituents and informed everyone appropriate of the accurate information by email and printed letter.

The subsequent media report of the incident that we prepared for the client proved our efforts were successful. For me, it was a thorough lesson in crisis communications from the classroom-setting presentation to real-life application. It may have been a whirlwind of a day at the end of my second week on the job, but as I’m learning in PR,  it’s just another day at the “office.”



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