Client Profile: Disaster is the nature of the job at Yosemite - Murder! Rock slides! Rampaging bears! A CNN camera crew! Don’t panic; it’s just another day at Yosemite National Park. Aimee Grove sends a few days roughing it with Yosemite%2

So much for a cushy PR gig in paradise. It’s 9:30 on a sunny July morning and Yosemite National Park media relations chief Scott Gediman has just returned from a rare two-week vacation. But rather than catching up on his e-mail, this PR pro has a TV camera crew waiting to grill him on at least one of three breaking stories: a paraplegic attempting to scale El Capitan, a hiker who has died in Tuolumne Grove and a just-released General Accounting Office report calling the park a dangerous ’fire trap.’

So much for a cushy PR gig in paradise. It’s 9:30 on a sunny July morning and Yosemite National Park media relations chief Scott Gediman has just returned from a rare two-week vacation. But rather than catching up on his e-mail, this PR pro has a TV camera crew waiting to grill him on at least one of three breaking stories: a paraplegic attempting to scale El Capitan, a hiker who has died in Tuolumne Grove and a just-released General Accounting Office report calling the park a dangerous ’fire trap.’

So much for a cushy PR gig in paradise. It’s 9:30 on a sunny July

morning and Yosemite National Park media relations chief Scott Gediman

has just returned from a rare two-week vacation. But rather than

catching up on his e-mail, this PR pro has a TV camera crew waiting to

grill him on at least one of three breaking stories: a paraplegic

attempting to scale El Capitan, a hiker who has died in Tuolumne Grove

and a just-released General Accounting Office report calling the park a

dangerous ’fire trap.’



’Just another day in the life,’ Gediman shrugs, glancing out his office

window to the view of Yosemite Falls. He is not exaggerating. On an

’average’ day during peak season, Gediman (a fully accredited National

Park Ranger) and his three-person PR team face up to five

search-and-rescue incidents and field anywhere from 50 to 60 press

calls. Add to that the 30 annual fatalities (including murders and

suicides), approximately 1,000 bear incidents per year, the endless slew

of lawsuits against the park and unpredictable natural disasters, such

as floods, and you get media mayhem.





Death, rockslides and perverts



Yet even after three years manning the ship, Gediman did not anticipate

the tourist-deterring bombshells that hit Yosemite in 1999. First there

was the kidnapping and murder of three park sightseers, whose bodies

were discovered in March. The summer months brought the gruesome

discovery of decapitated Yosemite naturalist Joie Armstrong and a severe

rockslide at the park’s popular Curry Village that killed one person.

Peeping tom video cameras were also discovered in some of the park’s

shower facilities in July. Finally, in October, during a staged protest

against rules prohibiting the sport, a BASE jumper fell to her death in

front of live camera crews when her parachute failed to open.



A newspaper cartoon, showing a couple entering the park, seemed to sum

up the PR challenges best: ’Remember, remove food from your car at

night ... We have bears! And don’t take any showers ... We have

perverts! And don’t talk to strangers with knives ... We have serial

killers! And don’t take any hikes ... We have rockslides! Have a great

vacation!’ a ranger warns the alarmed pair.



’You definitely need to be able to think on your feet in this job,’ says

Gediman, who adds that he has learned a great deal about the news

business over the past year. ’For example, always call AP and CNN back

first.’



Last year’s rash of crises also prompted the Park Service to restructure

operations to facilitate efficient media relations. Public information

responsibilities - for example, all non-media-oriented activities, such

as fulfillment of visitor requests and production of visitor information

materials - moved to a separate department. Gediman’s team now handles

only media and ’external relations’: that is, providing information to

politicians and other government decision-makers regarding issues

impacting the park.



In addition, Susan Arthur, PR manager for Yosemite Concessions Services

Corporation, which has the contract for all the park’s hotels,

activities and eateries, handles most of the travel, hospitality and

restaurant-related PR.



Neither Arthur nor Gediman employs an outside firm to assist with PR

duties, although several firms have expressed interest. Unlike most PR

officers at national parks, Gediman has a degree in PR and journalism

from San Diego State, training he credits with giving him the confidence

to handle the spotlight, even when the topic is grim. As he proudly

points out, in the past year he’s appeared on Leeza, Larry King Live and

In Style magazine, posing next to Felicity’s Keri Russell. And when the

BASE jumper fell to her death he was instantly on camera.



’I was standing right next to the woman’s husband when she fell. Within

seconds, all the TV cameras suddenly turned on me asking for comment,’

recalls Gediman. ’I was on the spot. I didn’t want to be insensitive to

this poor guy who just watched his wife die, but I also knew it was the

one chance I would get to get the park’s message across. I finally said,

’This is a horrible tragedy, but this also shows why we don’t believe

BASE jumping is an appropriate activity for a national park.’’





Praise from press



Gediman’s calm under pressure doesn’t surprise Dateline NBC producer

Susan Leibowitz, who’s worked with Gediman on two segments about bears

breaking into cars.



’People in the park system overall are typically very helpful, but

everyone especially loves working with Scott,’ she says. ’He’s an old

hand at all the (film) crew stuff, but he’s also very frank, even when

it means discussing things they would rather avoid, like euthanizing

bears. And he really understands the business - after all, he grew up in

the heart of LA.’



But dealing with BASE jumpers and bears is only one - albeit the most

time-consuming - part of Gediman’s job. His team works hard to generate

positive coverage for the park, particularly within the top regional

media outlets. ’Whenever we can, we try to seize the opportunity to

promote the park and position it in its best light,’ says Gediman. ’But

it’s tough.



I mean, last week in the middle of putting out a press release on the

new river plan, we heard about a Japanese woman drowning at Vernal

Falls.’



Within the past year, the role of park policy spokesperson and advocate

has become even more critical to Gediman’s post. Earlier this spring the

National Park System, under the direction of Secretary of the Interior

Bruce Babbitt, announced a preliminary growth management plan for

Yosemite that proposed several controversial measures, such as removing

some of the existing campgrounds and relocating employee housing outside

the valley.



During the plan’s public comment phase Gediman’s team toured cities in

California to elicit community feedback.



’Our goal was not to sell the plan, but to promote public involvement in

the plan-development process,’ he explains. ’We also tried to diversify

our outreach to different ethnic and demographic groups to counter the

criticism that we are only going out to the mainstream, white

audience.’



As policymakers draft up a final version of the plan for a September or

early October release, Gediman is already anticipating bumps in the road

ahead. As he sees it, overseeing its implementation will bring even more

headaches. ’People are resistant to change,’ he says. ’There’s always

someone who is going to say, ’I was conceived in campsite no. 59 - you

can’t move it!’’



But at the same time, Gediman and team are not complaining: ’Yosemite is

kind of like the jewel and the bellwether of the National Park

System.



We have the best of the best - and the worst of the worst. You have to

be ready for anything.’





YOSEMITE NAT’L PARK



PR chief: Scott Gediman



PR officers: Christine Cowles, media relations officer/wildlife

communications coordinator; Marc Stevens, media relations officer; Raye

Santos, media relations assistant



Yosemite Concession Services Corporation PR manager: Susan Arthur



External agency: none.



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