DEARBORN, MI: What started as a seemingly minor shoplifting incident at a Lord & Taylor store located across the freeway from Ford’s global headquarters has escalated into a PR pro’s worst nightmare: a double-barreled onslaught from black activist Rev. Al Sharpton and tort lawyer/former gubernatorial candidate Geoffrey Fieger.
DEARBORN, MI: What started as a seemingly minor shoplifting
incident at a Lord & Taylor store located across the freeway from Ford’s
global headquarters has escalated into a PR pro’s worst nightmare: a
double-barreled onslaught from black activist Rev. Al Sharpton and tort
lawyer/former gubernatorial candidate Geoffrey Fieger.
On June 22, members of a black family were observed by store security in
an alleged shoplifting incident. Security personnel, both black and
white, followed the family outside the store to apprehend them.
An altercation ensued, during which the adult male member of the family
died while wrestling with black security guards. A subsequent autopsy
indicated the cause of death as suffocation at the hands of one guard,
an off-duty black Detroit firefighter.
The death resulted in a dollars 600 million lawsuit against L&T and the
owner of the mall in which the store is located, filed by Fieger - best
known nationally as the lawyer for ’Dr. Death’ Jack Kevorkian and
locally for wringing monstrous settlements out of corporate and
governmental defendants - on behalf of the common-law wife and a step
daughter of the deceased.
The autopsy finding also brought cries of outrage from activists in
Detroit’s black community and soon attracted the attention of Sharpton
and Jesse Jackson. Detroit congressman John Conyers promptly demanded a
During all of this, L&T and its owner, The May Company, essentially
remained silent. Though black activists demanded apologies, responses
from the store and company seemed to be slow. In turn, the PR breakdown
led to unusually harsh criticism from key Detroit media as well as
significant second-guessing by the local PR community.
Detroit Free Press columnist Doron Levin railed against L & T’s PR
ineptness: ’Lord & Taylor behaves as if the killing should be treated
like an insurance claim.’ Soon thereafter, Crain’s Detroit Business came
forth with a critical editorial headlined, ’Lord & Taylor: How not to
handle a crisis.’
While one veteran Detroit counselor made a pitch to May to assist with
its PR, the pro was told the company already had ’outside counsel.’
Sharon Bateman, May’s VP of corporate communications, told PRWeek that
the company ’wasn’t in a position now to comment’ on either the incident
or its corporate and store PR strategies. She declined to describe the
corporate and store PR structures, confirm whether the company had a
crisis plan in effect prior to the incident or identify its outside PR