Crisis Management: University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine - Gold Medal

Category 6: Crisis Management
University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine – Barbaro

Contact: Gail Luciani, director of communications, 2800 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19104, Phone: (215) 898-1475, e-mail:

On Saturday, May 20, 2006, while the world watched, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro sustained a life-threatening injury during the running of the Preakness Stakes. According to Pimlico officials, there were 1,600 credentialed media at the track to cover the race that day. When Barbaro was rushed to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center, many of that contingent followed, where they were joined by additional local and national media.

They were there before Barbaro arrived. Helicopters flew overhead, and captured him being led into the George D. Widener Hospital’s intensive care unit. Trainer Michael Matz spoke to reporters that night, “. . . so we can all go home.” The next day, the media returned, for what we were told later was a death watch. Early that Sunday morning, we bought dozens of donuts and gallons of coffee – all consumed – and opened our largest classroom at the vet school to the press.

By noon, Chief of Surgery Dr. Dean W. Richardson arrived from Florida, where he had been performing surgery. We spoke with him when his plane landed, and together decided that he wouldn’t talk to the assembled press – but the room was filled to capacity, and we needed to make a statement. Dr. Richardson conducted a brief impromptu news conference, and then went to see his famous patient.

What do you do with more than 100 reporters, freelance writers and photographers? Our guests, mostly sports writers, knew little about advances in equine medicine, so our immediate goal became educating them about who we were and what we did while they waited for news. We distributed copies of our newsletter Bellwether, New Bolton Center fact sheets and our annual report. The clock ticked; it would be hours before Dr Richardson would report on the results of the surgery. So with the help of the hospital director, we conducted tours of our facility, including a demonstration of a horse running 35 miles an hour on a treadmill – impressive to even the most hardened sports writer.

We brought in our own photographer – with so many freelancers jockeying for permission to see and photograph Barbaro, we decided it was critical that we maintain control over any photos that would be shared with the media. One of her photos, Barbaro being lifted from the recovery pool, was on the front page of every major US newspaper the next day. As day turned into night, we ordered 20 pizzas for the press – New Bolton Center is located in bucolic Chester County, PA., with few restaurants in the immediate vicinity. And finally, after more than six hours of surgery, Dr. Richardson met with the press once again to announce that Barbaro had survived, but that he was not out of the woods – and wouldn’t be for a very long time.

Planning and objectives; audiences: After our immediate media relations response to Barbaro’s arrival, we met with Dr. Richardson and the director of the George D. Widener Hospital, Dr. Corinne Sweeney, to lay out plans for further communication. We agreed to funnel specific inquiries about Barbaro to Dr. Richardson, who graciously answered the same questions from inquiring reporters, over and over again. We positioned him with media that had the most impact, charting the requests and discussing our options with key players. Questions such as those about equine orthopedics were sent to other veterinary experts at the hospital. We created a subject matter expert list of faculty members who were available for interviews on related topics; Dr. Sweeney was our primary source for broader questions, such as background about the hospital, or the hundreds of flowers, carrots, and apples we received.

We also spoke with Barbaro’s owners, who graciously allowed us to share information about their horse, as often as was needed. According to our plan, in the days and weeks that followed the initial surgery, we sent out daily updates on Barbaro’s progress. Our objectives were both to keep the public informed about our patient and to educate them about equine medicine. Therefore, our daily updates included information on horseshoes, why racehorses need to reproduce naturally, and the history behind the recovery pool. We answered questions in FAQs, and posted photos. The interest was huge and it was sustained; when we shifted to updates every other day, and then weekly, people still wanted more information on Barbaro. We created a message board that allowed visitors to post comments and ask questions; the volume was so large, the board had to be monitored.

While our target audience was the media, the very nature of the Internet allowed us to communicate directly with the public as well. With our e-mail addresses posted on the online press releases, hundreds of people contacted us directly to comment, ask questions or offer medical advice. People sent us photos of dogs that had survived limb amputation and their own ankles that had undergone surgery; cancer survivors and people who suffered from chronic pain wrote. Many just wanted to say thank you – to Dr. Richardson and his staff, but also to us, the members of the communication team, for posting updates and photos on our Web site.

We wanted to keep our other audiences informed as well; alumni were sent e-mail updates, including one about our media hits, and several wrote to thank us for our efforts. When our alumni and donor publication Bellwether ran a cover story on Barbaro, we asked alumni to submit questions for a Vet2Vet feature). We also received questions from our clients at both our veterinary hospitals; while we did not have the resources to publish new material for them, we compiled some of our news clippings, made color copies and placed them in our waiting rooms at both the large animal hospital in Kennett Square and the small animal hospital in Philadelphia.

One important step in our planning was to consider a worst-case scenario; because Dr. Richardson was always very clear about the ongoing threats to Barbaro’s well being, we drafted a plan in mid-July for how to address the media in the event of Barbaro’s death.

Direction and Results: In the first two weeks, local and national television news covered Barbaro and New Bolton Center extensively. Penn Vet appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, ESPN and on local television and radio stations. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, USA Today. . . they all came to New Bolton to tell the story of Barbaro. The Associated Press ran daily updates until the Belmont Stakes on June 10, when ABC Wide World of Sports, filmed Barbaro in his stall for racing fans to see.

Between May 21 and December 31, we received more than 1,000 media requests, and conducted more than 500 interviews with print and broadcast media. In the first few weeks, five press conferences were held; along with medical updates from Barbaro’s surgeon, conferences were held with his owners and jockey, and the governor of Pennsylvania. We tracked requests and resulting coverage on page after page of spreadsheets. A sixth press conference was held July 13 to announce that Barbaro had the life-threatening condition of laminitis. A final conference was held January 29, 2007.

The message board that was created for fans to send their good wishes to Barbaro received more than 100,000 postings by December. In addition, our Web site was hit heavily -- before Barbaro, our Web site received between 500 and 1,000 visitors per day; through the week of May 22, it had 25,000 to 30,000 visitors per day. Hundreds of e-mail, and cards and letters, were sent – and this phenomenon, this outpouring of care and concern, became another media story in itself.

Our staff resources were limited, though thanks to the support of the Development Office we cleared voicemail messages, e-mail and cards and letters. Our budget was fluid; most of our work was done on the Web, though we were grateful for the additional funds needed for our photographer and other vendors.

To meet our objective of telling the story of veterinary medicine – beyond Barbaro – we pitched stories about the other work that was going on at the hospital. The Associated Press ran a feature titled “Now known for Barbaro, Pennsylvania vet hospital has other patients, tasks,” which appeared in dozens of media outlets across the country. The Chicago Tribune ran “Veterinary hospital is a breed apart; Facility that's tending to Barbaro treats all patients like champions.” The often unrecognized link between veterinary medicine and human health was explored in an article in the Courier Journal in Lexington, Kentucky. Another objective was ensuring the media reported that Barbaro was at the University of Pennsylvania – so many omitted that point, which of course was vital to us. We reminded them regularly, and positioned a sign with the Penn shield and school logo behind faculty being interviewed as often as possible.

The media responded well to our efforts, and many were kind enough to thank us in person, by phone or in e-mail. But one of the high points for our communication team was the gift to the Barbaro Fund of $1,000 from the National Turf Writers Association in recognition of our work with the media during Barbaro’s recovery. Donors also responded – the school received more than 2,000 online gifts from May through December, 66 percent more than all online giving for the School in fiscal year 2006.

Once the initial onslaught subsided, media inquiries continued, approximately a dozen a week, through the end of 2006. Barbaro’s condition improved steadily, worsened in the summer, improved again – and our communication staff of two was on call 24/7, always available for more than eight months to respond to questions from the media. We had hoped he would be discharged before New Year’s Eve. But that was not to be.

Epilogue: We lost Barbaro on Monday, January 29, 2007. While we had known all along it was a possibility, the end came suddenly. With the intercession of the hospital director, we were allowed to say good-bye to this magnificent creature. Then we had work to do – a final press conference, a final update, arranging final interviews. As of February 26, 2007, we are still responding to condolence e-mails, cards and letters.

Many communication professionals have had crisis communications training. But nothing can prepare even the most seasoned professional for a media onslaught that changes everything – and that lasts for months. Our mission, tied indelibly to our institutional goals, is teaching, healing and research . . . our communication challenge was keeping that at the forefront of our media frenzy. While we were devastated at his loss, what started as a media crisis became an incredible teaching opportunity – and with the support of our Development Office, may one day lead to a cure for laminitis. Barbaro’s saga provided us with an opportunity to raise awareness of veterinary medicine, advances in equine surgery, and the University of Pennsylvania. We will never forget him.