PRSA COVID-19 Updates

Due to the latest COVID-19 developments, the following changes have been made to the chapter’s upcoming events:

• March 19: GFW PRSA Health Care Special Interest Group meeting – postponed

• March 26: PR After Dark Happy Hour – postponed

• April 1: PRSA April luncheon – will be turned into a virtual event. Watch for details.

• May 6: PRSA May Luncheon – will be turned into a virtual event. Watch for details.

We are thinking of you & your teams and feel that keeping this group of PR professionals in contact will be beneficial as we all navigate this unprecedented time.

Getting the Third Degree – February PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

On February 27, 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself while sitting in a car. Normally, that would not be worthy of mention, except for what happened in the months to come: Liebeck was severely burned by the hot liquid, she was awarded a tidy $2.9 million – and she was vilified as the greedy woman who cashed in on her stupidity.

Most PR pros are at least vaguely aware of this story. But few people are aware of the background. For example, Liebeck suffered second- and even third-degree burns as a result of the spill; she was hospitalized for eight days and underwent a skin graft; and she was left her partially disabled for two years.

Also noteworthy: before seeking a lawyer, Liebeck had written a letter to McDonald’s, asking for $20,000; they offered $800. And in the 10 years prior, McDonald’s had received some 700 reports of burned customers and paid more than $500,000 to settle claims.

Still, the accident was Liebeck’s own fault, and the $2.9 million she was awarded in 1994 seemed a pretty sweet payout – and the media let everyone know it. “Java jury burns McD’s for $2.9m,” said one headline; another paper called the case a “Hot McVerdict.” International media also covered the story; one German paper announced, “Millions for coffee.”

Some media didn’t report the full story, others just plain got it wrong. For example, at the time if the spill, Liebeck was sitting in the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s car, which was parked and did not have cup holders. But both NBC News and George Will stated that Liebeck had been holding the cup between her legs while driving.

From there, it only got worse. Liebeck was mocked in political cartoons and by late-night comics; the spill was parodied in an episode of Seinfeld, and a citizen created The Stella Awards, presented annually to “any wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits.” ABC News called the case, “the poster child of excessive lawsuits” – prompting the Republican party to cite the case as a prime reason to introduce the Common Sense Legal Reform Act. This, class, is what a public relations crisis looks like.

But Liebeck did not have a PR team working to get out her side of the story. As one analyst later observed, “Once everybody decides what is true about something … how do you deal with the fact that they might be wrong?” So when a trial judge later reduced the payout to $640,000, it was widely perceived as a measure of justice for McDonald’s. (The parties later settled for a confidential amount.)

The epilogue: Liebeck died in 2004, age 91. In the years following the suit, several media outlets produced quality pieces, trying to fill in the narrative. But in 2009, Toby Keith released a song with the lyrics, “Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars.”

Was Liebeck’s big payout justified? Was any settlement appropriate? What could she have done in response? And what could McDonald’s PR team have done to manage the situation — or perhaps even prevent it?

These questions may be worth considering while you sip your morning coffee today. But carefully, please.

2019 Worthy Award Winners

The city’s top communicators were recognized for their outstanding achievements last night at the GFW PRSA 2019 Worthy Awards dinner.

A total of 58 awards were handed out at the eighth annual celebration, including 32 Awards of Excellence, 16 Awards of Achievement, and ten Worthy Awards–the chapter’s highest honor. The awards recognize the best in strategic communications programs and tactics practiced by professionals and students in the greater Fort Worth area.

Check out the full list of winners, here.

Communicator of the Year
Each year, GFW PRSA recognizes a community member outside the public relations profession who demonstrates leadership and effective communication when involved in a major event or issue affecting the greater Fort Worth region. This year’s award went to Mary-Margaret Lemons, president of Fort Worth Housing Solutions.

As the leader of the city’s independent housing authority, Lemons has worked to build and maintain support for deconcentrating low-income housing in Fort Worth. She was recognized for leading the charge for affordable housing by cultivating relationships with Fort Worth City Council, senior city staff, officials at Housing and Urban Development, as well as social service agencies and private developers.

Previous honorees include Dr. Kent Scribner, Fort Worth ISD superintendent; Paul Paine, Near Northside, Inc. president; Robert Earley, JPS President and CEO; Patsy Thomas, former president Mental Health Connection; Walter Danby, former Fort Worth ISD Superintendent; Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price; and former Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns.

PRSA Professional of the Year
Michelle Gutt, the communications and public engagement director for the City of Fort Worth, is the recipient of the inaugural Douglas Ann Newsom PRSA Professional of the Year Award. The newly introduced honor recognizes PRSA members who have made significant and outstanding achievement in the profession.

Gutt has more than 25 years of marketing and public relations experience in government, corporate and nonprofit work, and currently leads communications efforts for a diverse city-wide audience. Among many accomplishments, Gutt was recognized for her work developing a robust communications plan for the city’s Race and Culture Task Force, launching the MyFW customer service app for the city, and developing and launching an extensive internal communications plan surrounding the city’s pension vote earlier this year.

A Monumental Crisis

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

It’s funny how the best intentions can sometimes lead to the worst PR situations. Actually, it’s not funny at all. But that’s what happened prior to November 13, 1982, the day of the dedication ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Certainly the individuals  leading the effort, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund committee, had tried to do the right thing. They had gathered the support of influential people like H. Ross Perot. They held an open competition, accepting more than 1,400 design proposals. They also gathered eight distinguished artists and designers to judge the designs, concealing the identity of the entrants.

So it was a bit of a surprise when the jury announced that the winning design had been submitted by Maya Lin, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at Yale. Her proposal was a bit of a surprise, too: A giant, black, granite V, cut into the ground.

Lin’s design was the jurors’ unanimous choice and well-received by many. As the New York Times wrote, “This design gives every indication of being a place of extreme dignity that honors the veterans who served in Vietnam with more poignancy, surely, than any ordinary monument ever could.”

But some people did not like Lin’s proposal – and among them were many were veterans. They questioned little details about the design, like why, since all of the other monuments in D.C. were white, this one was black. And they wondered why all the other monuments soared into the air, while this one sank into the ground.

Some critics thought the giant V was intended as a subtle form of the two-fingers Peace symbol; one opponent called it “a tribute to Jane Fonda.” One of the most vocal opponents was Tom Carhart, a Vietnam vet who also had entered the competition; he called Lin’s design “a black ditch of shame and sorrow.”

The controversy escalated. People on both sides received threatening phone calls. More than two dozen Republican congressmen wrote a letter to President Reagan, calling the monument “a political statement of shame and dishonor,” while columnist Pat Buchanan asserted that one of the jurors was a Communist. James Watt, Reagan’s secretary of the Interior, refused to issue a building permit, and Perot withdrew his support, describing Lin, who was of Chinese descent, as an “egg roll.”  As NPR later reported, the project “needed public relations crisis managers.” Indeed.

Eventually a compromise was reached: A bronze statue of three soldiers and a U.S. flag on a 50-foot pole would be added to the memorial. This, too, was the subject of controversy, with the unhappy vets wanting the additions placed front and center of the V, an idea that Lin and the architects association strenuously opposed. Ultimately the statue and flag were added, but were placed off to the side. Depending upon your viewpoint, this was either a good compromise or yet another insult.

The years appear to have worked in favor of Lin and her supporters. The American Institute of Architects now ranks the memorial No. 10 on its list of “America’s Favorite Architecture,” and it has become the most widely visited monument in D.C. Several traveling and fixed replicas also have been built.

The initial hostility to Lin’s design may have been an over-reaction, but the opponents did have one point PR pros may want to keep in mind: None of the people judging the proposals had served in Vietnam. We’ll close with excerpts of a thoughtful opinion piece Tom Carhart published in the New York Times:

“There were really two wars in that era: The first was a military war fought in Vietnam where 57,000 Americans died and whose veterans the Fund is authorized by Congress to ‘recognize and honor’; the second was a political war waged here at home. The jurors know nothing of the real war in Vietnam — the television portrayal was far from adequate. … The net result is that the design the jury chose as the winner was necessarily a function of their perception of the war they lived through in America.”

Indeed.

Join us for our next GFW PRSA luncheon on Wednesday, August 14, at Colonial Country Club!

Two high-profile crises – the Jacqueline Craig incident and the uproar over SB4 – motivated the City of Fort Worth to assemble a task force and launch the Race and Culture Initiative in August 2017.  The 18-month effort required a sustained community engagement and communications strategy.

Hear from Michelle Gutt, the City of Fort Worth’s communications chief, Bob Ray Sanders, a member of the City’s Race and Culture Task Force, and Estrus Tucker, lead consultant, as they share insights on the Race and Culture Initiative from a communications perspective.

When: Wednesday, August 14, 2019, 11:30 A.M.  – 1:00 P.M.

Where: Colonial Country Club

Register here.