CAMPAIGNS: Crisis Communications - Town fights back to protectimage

New Bedford, MA, once a gritty blue-collar town, had spent years trying to recast its image, and had made notable progress when tragedy struck in November 2001, threatening to tarnish the positive perception the city had been crafting.

On November 24, four teenagers, accused of planning a massacre at New Bedford High School, were arrested thanks to a tip given to a teacher.

With memories of Columbine still fresh, reporters came in droves. Its location, near the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border, meant TV crews from Boston and Providence, RI were both on the story quickly.


Cone's crisis communications team was brought in to help prevent the media from stereotyping the city as a citadel of violence. "Essentially, they were protecting their reputation,

says Cone EVP Mike Lawrence, who oversaw the campaign.

Cone focused on providing reporters with the facts on the city's economic development, and giving them a sense of the city's history. Main message points also emphasized that policies and procedures put in place by the high school to prevent violence had worked - the students were arrested before they could harm classmates.


Cone began monitoring media coverage November 28, the day it was hired.

Twice-daily analysis of coverage by Cone was given to key city officials.

A fact sheet on the city's economic history was quickly distributed to the media. The high school teacher who was tipped off by students about the shooting plot was given media training since "she would be the person the media would most want to talk to,

says Lawrence. City officials were also briefed on what to expect from reporters. "The thing they wanted to know most was, 'What's the media going to say about New Bedford?'

says Lawrence.

B-roll was shot of the interior of the high school and given to media.

This was done to prevent camera crews from wandering the halls, disrupting students.

The b-roll included shots of the school's video surveillance system and of the police officers who are normally assigned to the school, and was distributed to 12 local and national TV outlets on the day an accused student was brought in for a bail hearing. Cone staffers and a city PR staffer attended the hearings to be on-hand for comment. Background information on the city and on school-violence prevention was also distributed to all media attending the hearings.

The mayor wrote an op-ed for the Boston Herald, discussing the need for public funding of programs that support teenagers and give schools the resources to spot potential problems. "He wanted to make sure people knew this stuff didn't happen for free,

Lawrence says.

Cone kept the city appraised of how much it was spending on crisis management during its assignment. "There is price sensitivity even in crisis,

especially with municipal clients, Lawrence says.


Coverage focused on how the plot was discovered and how others could learn from this saga. "It's exactly the coverage the city wanted,

says Lawrence. "The coverage never morphed into a bad place. It was a clean 'people did their jobs' story.

Cone continued monitoring media coverage until December 11, when the city asked it to stop, feeling the crisis was over.


While Cone's engagement with New Bedford is over, the city hopes to continue its progress on economic development, and has an in-house PR staff handling ongoing efforts.

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