When Gail Luciani became the communications head for the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine two years ago, it was a dream job for the lifelong animal lover with nearly 25 years of PR experience.
"It was a chance to marry my skills with my passion," she says.
Her job mostly revolved around updating marketing materials, writing speeches for the school's dean, and conducting media relations, which typically accounts for about 25% of her time. But that was before May 20, the day a certain equine patient turned up at the New Bolton Center - part of the school - and changed her life.
On May 20, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was racing in the Preakness - the second race of the Triple Crown series - when he shattered his right hind leg. By 7pm that night, he was on his way to New Bolton, Luciani says, and the phones didn't stop ringing. A particularly helpful call came from Mike Gathagan, communications VP for Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, home of the Preakness.
"He said, 'I just want you to know that we had 1,600 credentialed media representatives here today, and they're headed your way,'" Luciani recalls. "That's when I realized just what was ahead of us."
By the time Luciani reached New Bolton, located in Kennett Square, PA, the media were already there and waiting for comment on Barbaro's condition. Once the horse was settled into intensive care, trainer Michael Matz made a brief media statement. The next day, as Barbaro prepared to go into a surgery expected to last about six or seven hours, the communications team faced the challenge of entertaining a cadre of reporters.
Luciani says the team decided to make it an educational experience. "Most of the reporters didn't have a solid understanding of equine veterinary medicine," she says.
The team made brochures about the facility available to the press and took a group on a tour. This included a visit to the treadmill room, which was an eye-opening experience for those who'd never seen a horse run on a treadmill.
"Just seeing the looks on their faces... was incredible," Luciani says. "We showed them things that they didn't know anything about."
Those first few days of Barbaro's stay at New Bolton were indeed hectic, but soon enough a routine was established, something Luciani credits to the small, diligent communications team. The staff even used the increased media attention as a push to update the school's Web site, complete with high-resolution photos for the media. "I made lots of new friends in IT," she says with a laugh.
While Dr. Dean Richardson, Barbaro's surgeon, was the main spokesman on the horse's condition, Luciani says she also used Dr. Corinne Sweeney, associate dean for New Bolton Center and executive hospital director, to give background information to reporters.
"There's never been this kind of media attention in the history of New Bolton," Sweeney says. "Gail clearly realized there were priorities... of how the message would be best communicated."
And the media appear to have responded favorably: The Turf Writers Association donated $1,000 to the Barbaro fund, citing New Bolton's staff as the reason.
Media attention quieted, but the horse's battle with laminitis, an often fatal equine disease, has caused an uptick again. Luciani says the events surrounding Barbaro, who currently is stable, but guarded, will have a lasting effect.
"People have told me, 'Boy you couldn't pay for that kind of PR,'" she says. "When I've thought about that in terms of my own career, there's no place else I could have gotten the training that I've had here these past months."
Communications director, Univ. of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine
May 1998-October 2004
Principal, Light Years Comms.
April 1996-May 1998
Senior comms director, General Instrument
January 1988-April 1996
Communications manager, Texas Instruments