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.

Your PR talents are needed!

Looking to serve or volunteer? GFW PRSA is a great way to get connected. There are openings on the GFW PRSA board committees and special interest groups. Please email lauravanhoosier@gmail.com if you would like to get more involved with the chapter and she will get you plugged in.

Safehaven honors one of GFW PRSA’s very own with Legacy of Women Award

Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people. —Peter Strople

Gigi Westerman, APR, Fellow PRSA, has been recognized with the prestigious 2019 SafeHaven Legacy of
Women Award. Westerman, a long-time member of GFW PRSA, was honored in October, along with
nine others community leaders and advocates during the 27 th annual Legacy of Women awards
ceremony. SafeHaven’s mission is to end domestic violence through safety, support, prevention and
social change as the largest and most comprehensive domestic violence service provider in Tarrant
County.
The event “expands awareness of the astonishing one in three Tarrant County women who will
experience domestic violence in their lifetime, while honoring women who are leaders and advocates in
our region,” said Kathryn Jacob, president and CEO of Safehaven. “Legacy of Women exemplifies the
word ‘community’ with an unwavering support and continuous rise for change.”
Westerman is co-founder of The S & G Group, an Arlington-based strategic planning and
communications firm that offers integrated communications, market research and analysis, branding,
media relations, crisis communications, issue management, and media training services to clients in the
government, nonprofit and business sectors. Westerman launched the firm in 2015 with long-time
business partner Sandra Brodnicki, APR.
Westerman’s commitment in Tarrant County is all encompassing, according to Michelle Clark, APR,
Associate Vice Chancellor, Advancement Strategy and Administration at Texas Christian University and
Director, Greater Fort Worth PRSA. “Gigi demonstrates that throughout all aspects of her life – while
working on behalf of clients, volunteering for nonprofit organizations, being a committed friend, and
making a difference as a leader and mentor,” Clark said. “She is insightful and unfailingly generous of her
expertise, and uses her time and talents to help make our community and profession better.”
Westerman has been an active member of PRSA since 2002, serving in local and national capacities.
After earning her accreditation in 2010, she dedicated herself to helping others obtain their APRs,
through individual mentorship and local and national accreditation efforts. After being inducted into the
PRSA College of Fellows, she was asked to lead the College of Fellows mentoring efforts and helped
develop a national plan to enhance mentorship within the organization. She has also served as a GFW
PRSA board member and assembly delegate since 2012, bringing local issues to the national stage.

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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.