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.

GFW PRSA October Webinar: The Art and (Brain) Science of Effective Communications

Learn how to craft bite-sized content to get people’s attention from Kristin Graham, principal of culture & communications at Amazon.

About this Event

There’s plenty written on the art of creating content. This conversation, however, will focus on the sexy side of the science. By learning more about information psychology, attention spans, and technology trends, you can better plan communications in today’s digital (and distant) age.

Kristin Graham, principal of culture and communications at Amazon, will share insights about anticipating the needs of today’s evolving audience and how to be more productive in your own day.

Through a collection of “nerd facts,” you’ll learn how to craft bite-sized content to get people’s attention.

Bring your questions and comments for an interactive conversation on how to be heard in today’s digital environment.



  • 11:30-11:45 a.m.: GFW PRSA Annual Meeting and presentation and official vote on the 2021 slate of officers
  • 11:45 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.: Program including Q&A

After you register here on Eventbrite, an Outlook calendar notice with the Zoom link will be emailed to you.

Please invite a colleague or friend to this webinar.


Kristin Graham, principal of culture & communications at Amazon

A former journalist and current technology leader, Kristin Graham has centered her career on storytelling. Curiosity wove her career from non-profits to Fortune 50s before she moved to leading communications and employee programs for Expedia, Inc.

Her experience includes executive and employee communications, diversity and inclusion, philanthropy, learning & development, and employer branding initiatives. She also ran a global recruiting team for three years and saw up-close the art of negotiation and the art of the ask.

After a year-long travel sabbatical, Kristin joined Amazon where she leads culture and communication programs. At Amazon, she leads the Amazon narrative writing classes, reaching more than 10,000 Amazonians in six countries – and now globally online.

A frequent speaker on the topic of communications and information science, Kristin is part of the Ragan Communications Leadership Council and has given keynotes at organizations like Microsoft, Facebook, Walt Disney World, International Association of Business Communicators, Public Relations Society of America, and the National Investor Relations Institute.

Kristin has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and an executive MBA from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For more information, visit http://www.kristingrahamcomms.com.

Whatever Floats Your Boat

The PR campaign that help sink a war hero’s presidential ambitions

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

People often discuss politics using military terms. We refer to “campaigns” and “war chests,” or lament, “But we can’t count on the French.”

Coincidentally, one of the more memorable recent political PR campaigns involved military service—particularly, that of John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004. While serving in Vietnam, Kerry had earned three Purple Heart medals, as well as the Bronze and Silver medals.

Kerry’s military record appeared to be an impregnable front line. But a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) thought otherwise, and set out to prove it. In a press conference, they announced that their mission was to “accurately portray” Kerry’s service in Vietnam, and they presented a statement that was signed by a regiment of veterans. Or maybe it was a battalion—in any case, it was a lot.

In August 2004, they launched, if you will, an all-out assault on Kerry’s record. Two members of the group published a book about Kerry titled, “Unfit for Command.” They also created a website and a series of well-crafted commercials featuring comments from several concerned vets, who questioned Kerry’s honesty, character, courage, and woefully unassertive eyebrows.

Kerry’s campaign responded, noting that two of the vets appearing in the commercials had previously supported him, and one of the retired officers attacking him had previously written commendations.

Other questions popped up. Some of the interviewees said their comments had been edited in a misleading fashion, the military doctor who accused Kerry of lying about his wounds had no record of having ever treated him, and one “witness” later admitted he had no firsthand knowledge of the events.

Republican Sen. John McCain, himself a Vietnam vet, condemned the ads, saying they were “dishonest and dishonorable.” And as I’m sure you all remember, the group’s initial statement was signed by some suspicious Navy vets, including Popeye, Gilligan and Capt. Jack Sparrow.

The strong resistance did not deter the SBVT troops, who ran four commercials and did numerous interviews. At the end of the month, they called on Kerry to release all his military and medical records, and released an open letter stating, “Tell the Truth and We’ll Stop the Ads.” To which the Kerry campaign reportedly responded, “You can’t make me, you can’t make me.”

In a matter of weeks, the SWBT campaign had changed the arc of the contest. But did it also tip the election? Many of George W. Bush’s supporters thought so; one conservative columnist wrote that the SWBT’s efforts “gave Bush a chance,” and another wrote, “There is not a doubt in my mind this was the difference in the race.” Kerry himself later wrote, “If I were a citizen watching that ad … I wouldn’t vote for me.” (Nor would Ralph Nader.)

For a while, “swift boating” became a noun referring to the act of making exaggerated or unsubstantiated allegations to damage someone’s credibility. Today of course, we just call it Tweeting.

PR pros may not agree on whether the SWBT campaign is something to be celebrated or shunned. But there’s little doubt it’s a clear example of the critical role PR can have in a presidential election.

And look, here comes one now.

GFW PRSA August Webinar: 2020 Media Panel presented by GFW PRSA

Virtual media panel with journalists from KERA, the Star-Telegram and local TV affiliates.

About this Event

Brought back by popular review! This year we are offering a virtual media panel with journalists from KERA, the Star-Telegram, Fort Worth Business Press and local TV affiliates.

Hear about how some of the most respected DFW journalists have covered and coped with the COVID-19 epidemic, and the impact on staffing, assignments and the news outlet’s business overall. Learn about the preferences and pet peeves of journalists when working with PR professionals.

WEBINAR: 2020 Media Panel presented by GFW PRSA


    • Chris Connelly, KERA
    • Robert Francis, Business Press
    • Yona Gavino, NBC5
    • Luke Ranker, Star-Telegram
    • Teresa Woodard, WFAA

Moderator: Gigi Westerman, APR, Fellow PRSA

Bonus! Bring a pitch-in-development and get feedback on the spot!


    • Wed., Aug. 5, 2020
    • 11:30 a.m.
    • Cost $5 (This helps cover our Zoom costs.)

After registering, an Outlook calendar notice with the Zoom link will be emailed to you.

GFW PRSA July Virtual Program – Unheard: Black Lives and the Fight for Justice

Mark your calendars! Join us for our next GFW PRSA Virtual Program on Friday, July 31!

Across the globe, protesters took to the streets after George Floyd died while in custody of Minneapolis police. People of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds marched to seek justice for Floyd and to support Black Lives Matter, a movement started in 2013 to “build local power and to intervene when violence was inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” The protests have awakened the consciousness of the nation, calling for an overhaul of the criminal justice system at all levels of government and a dismantling of systemic racism and white supremacy.

In addition to calling for systemic change, white Americans have been challenged to listen to African Americans and learn more about the racial injustices people of color face both at an individual and a societal level. At our June program, which happens to fall on Juneteenth, we will hear from the co-hosts of Blackbelt Voices, a podcast that “propagates the richness of Black Southern culture by telling the stories of Black folks down South.”

Through first-person narratives and in-depth conversations, hosts Adena J. White, Kara Wilkins and Katrina Dupins share the experiences of Black Southerners living in, loving, and reconciling with the region they call home. During this program, Adena, Kara and Katrina – all professional communicators –  will talk about how Blackbelt Voices came to be, the importance of media representation, and adapting messages to resonate with different audiences.

Featured Guests:

• Adena J. White, APR is an accredited public relations professional with more than a decade of experience in strategic communication and storytelling. She is the director of communications for the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and the 2019 president of the Arkansas Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. She is currently the secretary of the PRSA Southwest District.

A strong believer in the power of storytelling for social change, Adena founded Blackbelt Media LLC in 2017, which produces the Blackbelt Voices podcast. The podcast propagates the richness of Black Southern culture by telling stories from and about Black folks down South.

Adena obtained a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and journalism with an emphasis in public relations from Arkansas Tech University. She later completed a master’s degree in applied communication studies from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

• Kara Wilkins is a solutions-focused communications and community engagement consultant, with an extensive background in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. She has over a decade of experience working with diverse communities to create innovative solutions to improve health and human equity.

Prior to her role as owner and principal consultant at KWilkins Consulting Group, Kara worked at the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation, Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, where she honed her skills in communications, outreach, public policy, development, and advocacy/government relations.

• Katrina Dupins is a professional communicator who writes features about people whose circumstances tend to change their perspective on life.

Katrina joined UAMS in 2013 as media relations manager. Before going to UAMS, she spent seven years at KATV Channel 7 where she worked in several positions, including video editor, production assistant and field producer. Katrina earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Arkansas Tech University.

She spends free mornings jogging or scoping out the best places to enjoy a quiet sunrise. She enjoys cooking, gardening and photography.