Watershed Moment

How a daredevil’s plunge over Niagara Falls managed to be both a success and a failure

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

Some people will go to any length to get some publicity. But others will go to any depth, and such was the case on Oct. 24, 1901, when Annie Edson Taylor successfully plunged over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Taylor was not the first person to challenge the falls, but she was the first person to survive. Even more impressive, she took the plunge on her 63rd birthday; you know how those seniors love field trips.

But there was a dark side to Taylor’s adventure: It was motivated primarily by a need for money. A widow and former teacher, Taylor had struggled financially for years. The stunt, she hoped, would bring her fame and fortune. And this was years before the premier of “Survivor.”

For a modestly educated retiree, Taylor was quite adept at strategic planning. For one, the Michigan resident planned the trip to coincide with the Pan-American Exposition scheduled for nearby Buffalo. The barrel was custom-made, featuring a mattress and a weighted bottom. She also hired an associate, Frank Russell, to go to New York and generate advance publicity.

And when Taylor arrived, she did a bold but primitive version of A-B testing, sending the barrel over the falls with a cat in it. The feline survived, and Taylor, having dubbed herself “The Queen of the Mist,” posed for photos with the cat and the barrel.

Taylor’s own trip took less than 20 minutes, and like the cat, she emerged relatively unscathed and was greeted by the press. “If it was with my dying breath,” she said, “I would caution anyone against attempting the feat,” possibly adding, “At least not without first signing a non-compete agreement.”

As she had hoped, Taylor enjoyed a burst of celebrity, getting speaking engagements. Unfortunately, the fame did not last long. Adding to her woes, the barrel was stolen, with a prime suspect being her PR man, Frank Russell. Taylor, who had risked her life to achieve financial security, died in poverty at age 82.

Her attempts to discourage others from challenging the falls also were not successful. Since her plunge, more than 25 people are known to have taken the trip, with at least 10 dying. (This does not include the approximately 25 people who die each year during suicide attempts.)

Ultimately, the real PR winner is, of course, the falls themselves. At least 9 million people visit the site each year, which is now supported by a state park (the oldest in the United States), a restaurant, a conference center and an entertainment district. Plans for a giant mural honoring the World Champion Buffalo Bills remain on hold.

Running a successful PR campaign isn’t the easiest thing to do. But the next time a client has you over a barrel, remember that it really could be worse. Because while the sky may be the limit for us, a 160-foot plunge is a different matter.

Media Landscape Amid COVID-19, Courtesy Of Kim Brown, APR

“As a former broadcast news producer, I never thought I’d see the day when interviews were primarily conducted virtually. I remember standing in the production booth at CBS 11, patching in Skype interviews after the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. The quality was poor, but it was breaking news. The kind where quality doesn’t really matter. We were on the air and needed the latest information. This was the exception to our ‘the viewers care about quality, so avoid Skype interviews’ rule.

Seven years later, here we are, in the middle of breaking news once again. This time, it’s a global pandemic and nearly everyone has been sent home. Who could have imagined a time when Chris Cuomo would be hosting his primetime show on CNN from his basement? It’s the same for local media too. Anchors, reporters, even producers and editors are all working from home. The thought of this makes my former producer brain spin. And I want to know, will their shift to online news reporting last? In certain aspects, I hope it does.

As a media relations specialist at Cook Children’s Medical Center, I see the doors of possibility opening amid the current news landscape. Things move more quickly now. Instead of juggling multiple schedules, arranging locations for filming, coordinating with the expert, department leaders, parking and security to ensure everyone is in the loop, now interviews can be done with the click of a Zoom link. It literally takes an hours-long process down to minutes. And it’s not just saving everyone time, it’s opening up opportunities for interviews that may have never occurred.

One example of how this new process has worked to our advantage is our recent stories about child abuse. About a week after stay-at-home orders went into effect in North Texas, Cook Children’s began seeing an uptick in cases of severe physical abuse. Seven children were admitted to the hospital in one week and two of those children died. We knew we had to do something, so we sounded the alarm and started speaking out. This strategy isn’t new to us, but what is different is the number of interviews we were able to line up for Cook Children’s child abuse pediatrician, Jamye Coffman, M.D. Normally, we would be limited in how many shoots we could schedule because of the valuable time it takes up. (And if anyone’s time is important, it’s Dr. Coffman’s.) But thanks to Zoom and similar platforms, we were lining up interviews back to back. Since mid-March, Dr. Coffman has been featured in nearly two dozen unique articles, from local outlets to the New York Times, regarding child abuse and the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. I have to believe this level of coverage would not have been possible without the media’s newfound comfort with virtual interviews. Yes, some of these stories were done with old-fashion phoners, but many weren’t. And if not for all of these interviews, I’m not sure this issue would be receiving the attention it deserves. After the initial stories came out, other children’s hospitals started reporting similar trends nationwide. Now, child abuse amid quarantine is something people across the country are talking about. I think virtual interviews are partly to thank.” Kim Brown, 

Senior Media Relations and Communications Specialist at Cook Children’s

May Program Presentation: How Public Relations Practitioners Can Help Organizations Adapt to COVID-19

Click here for our latest virtual program from this month’s presenter – Julie O’Neil: PRSA COVID 19 Presentation O’Neil.

 

 

Now and Then: Are we living through an unprecedented time … again?

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

These are unprecedented times, which call for extraordinary actions – including another pandemic-themed column. This month, we present some random notes on our nation’s history with economic and health crises. Depending upon your perspective, this will either make you feel much better about our current situation or much worse. Either way, it might add a little historical perspective for PR pros as we advise their clients.

– From 1636 to 1698, Boston endured six epidemics of smallpox. The one in 1721 was so bad that most people fled the city.

– The country’s first significant financial crisis began in 1785. Four more followed quickly, and 16 of the next 25 years would be marked by economic turmoil.

– In 1835, the Bank of Maryland collapsed. Citizens, convinced they had been scammed, attacked the houses of the bankers. The state militia was called out, killing some 20 people and wounding many more.

– In 1837, the Great Plains suffered through a smallpox epidemic, one of several that contributed to the decimation of the Native Americans. That same year, the Panic of 1837 occurred.

– The Panic of 1837 was horribly misnamed. In fact, the recession lasted for about seven years, during which time more than a third of the banks failed, millions of people were unemployed, and civil unrest was widespread. The difficult time is more accurately summed up by the historian’s book titled, “America’s first Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political and Disorder after the Panic of 1837.”

– 1837 also saw the Flour Riot, and no, it was not any fun.

– There have been multiple cholera epidemics around the world and in the U.S. Groups held responsible for starting the various outbreaks include Jews, gypsies, Indians, Filipinos, the Irish and the poor. Some American scientists blamed African Americans for causing cholera, while Tunisians blamed Europeans. Whoever was to blame, President Polk is believed to have died from it, along with millions of others.

– The Panic of 1873 lasted about four years, with the New York Stock Exchange closing for 10 days.

– Yet another panic occurred in 1893, again lasting about four years. In some states, the unemployment rate topped 25 percent, and the supply of gold reserves fell so low that J.P. Morgan had to give the government a bailout.

– The big picture: If you were born in1835 and lived to be 65, you would have lived through 16 recessions.

– Although smallpox has largely been eliminated in the U.S., there have been numerous epidemics. The last major domestic event occurred in Boston between 1901-1903, and had an estimated a 17 percent fatality rate.

– In 1920, Edith Wharton published what many consider to be her masterpiece, a book about the flu pandemic of 1918. It was titled, “The Age of Innocence.”

– In 1929, the Great Depression – ah, never mind.

– From 1949 to 1960, there were four recessions.  Although the 1960 one was brief, Nixon, who was vice president at the time, believed it cost him the election, because voters blamed their woes on the Republicans.

– There were two recessions between 1980 and ’82. Unemployment reached almost 11 percent, and for six quarters, the GDP was negative.

– In 2013, CBS ran a program on the JFK assassination; it was titled, “When America Lost its Innocence.” The Orange County Register also called the event  “the weekend America lost its innocence.” The ‘60s, they added, were “a time Americans came to question almost everything we had once taken for granted.”

– After the September 11 attacks, a senior Time magazine essayist, (among others), declared the event marked “the end of the age of irony.” Before the attacks, he explained, “the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously.”

– Not to be outdone by her elders, a 25-year-old journalist wrote of the attacks, “Maybe a coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm will get serious. Maybe we’ll stop acting so jaded.”

– In 2012, a movie titled, “The Age of Deceit” was released.

– Earlier this month, the Fort Worth Business Press’  Robert Francis wrote an insightful column noting the sudden surge in the use of the words “unprecedented” and “uncertain.” Just for fun, I typed “unpr,” and sure enough, Google’s third search response was “unprecedented times.”

– In March, author and speaker Simon Sinek released a video out titled, “These Are Not Unprecedented Times.” It’s has more than more than 270,000 views – and just wait until we’re able to start holding conferences again.

Unprecedented or not, these are definitely difficult times for many. Please be kind to one another.

Self-quarantined

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

In 1918, accurate information about the extent of the flu pandemic was often kept under lockdown.

During the influenza pandemic of 1918, April was a relatively uneventful month. But given the current circumstances, it seems a good idea to interrupt our regularly scheduled column to look at this event from a PR perspective.

The first thing to note is that the crisis was wrongly blamed on another country: that pandemic was often called “the Spanish flu.” But World War I was going on, and reports of the damage being done by the flu might encourage one’s enemies and discourage morale.

So the major countries involved in the war (including the U.S.) withheld information on the extent of the flu. As the Smithsonian explained, “By contrast, neutral Spain had no need to keep the flu under wraps. That created the false impression that Spain was bearing the brunt of the disease.”

If only officials had kept the virus under wraps as carefully as they did information. The New York Times, for example, ran a story quoting the city’s health commissioner. The headline: “Influenza epidemic not expected here.” The headline for an interview with U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue was, “Advises on Mild ‘Flu.’ ”And the headline in an Iowa paper read, “Iowa physicians say epidemic is old-fashioned influenza, nothing more.”

Historian John M. Barry, author of, “The Great Influenza,” noted that President Wilson went one step further, creating the dubiously named Committee for Public Information. As the group’s founder explained, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value.” Which is why it was not called the Committee for Truthful Public Information.

Fortunately, there were many efforts to accurately educate citizens. For example, The Wisconsin State Journal reported on the “woeful shortage” of medical staff, adding that local pastors were asking people to stay at home. And the Seattle Times ran blurbs explaining flu safety precautions and symptoms on its front page. Above the masthead.

But with so many conflicting messages, conflicting responses were inevitable, often with tragic results. Never was this more evident than in Philadelphia.

In September, the city decided to hold a massive parade for war bonds. Medical and public officials both objected to the idea, but their concerns were repressed by higher-ranking officials. The day after the event, the Philadelphia Enquirer proudly reported, “Representatives of a great nation embattled take part in tremendously impressive pageant.” A few weeks later, the same paper reported 200,000 cases in the city, escalating deaths and an emergency hospital being built.

Some of the best information on the pandemic would not be available for another 20 years. Legendary author Katherine Anne Porter was stricken with the flu, and became so sick that her obituary was prepared. Porter survived, and her 1939 novel, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is a fictionalized account of her experience living – and almost dying – at that time. One historian who later wrote about the pandemic dedicated his book to Porter.

Hopefully, this pandemic will be kinder to us than the first crisis (although the 1918 crisis saw far more deaths in the fall than the spring.) Whatever happens, it’s worth keeping in mind the important role PR pros can plan. As a professor from Middle Tennessee observed, “there are numerous lessons to be learned [from 1918] about perception management, rumor control, and public belief about what is and is not happening.”

Author John M. Barry was more blunt. “The biggest lesson from the 1918 pandemic is clearly to tell the truth,” he said. “People can deal with the truth. It’s the unknown that’s much scarier.”

May all of you – and the truth – stay safe.