PR Nightmares Can Happen To You

PR Nightmares Can Be Avoided with a Crisis Communication Plan

The Lifeguard Fired for Saving a Life – We Analyze the Case!

PR nightmares begin with simple mistakes that flourish into a media blitz of bad PR without following a Crisis Communication Plan. Bad press and public boycotts of companies begin only if a company fails to follow a Crisis Communication Plan.

Without a Crisis Communication Plan, you operate blindly and might as well open your doors to PR Nightmares and know they’ll come someday…maybe not today but someday.

When we do not listen to consumers or to basic business reasoning, our faulty decisions however well intended can produce PR nightmares and bad press for the company. It is a challenge to control the end result of the public with any business news whether good or bad, so have a plan!.

PR NIGHTMARE CASE STUDY: THE FIRED LIFEGUARD
The Case
Hallandale Beach, Florida hired Jeff Ellis Management to put lifeguard’s on the beach for the 2012 summer. After helping save a man’s life, one of the lifeguards, Hallandale Beach resident Tomas Lopez, was fired by the company.

Tomas Lopez explains how he saved a man's life and was fired for it in Hallandale Beach, Fla.


Other people pulled the drowning man out of the water, but Lopez helped care for him as soon as he was able to run outside of his zone and assist.

“I put him in the recovery position, which we are trained to do, and I had a nurse come and help me,” Lopez reported to media outlets.

The Questionable Decision and Bad PR
The management company informed Lopez that because he went out of the company’s coverage zone to save the drowning man he put other beach goers in jeopardy and had to be let go due to insurance and other issues.

The PR Nightmare Needed a Communication Plan
Once media outlets reported on Lopez’s firing to the world, a PR Nightmare brewed quickly for the management company with a public outcry that included threats against executive and sent them to the board room to lick their wounds and rethink their decision. View NBC’s National Coverage of the Story

The media blitz painted a crystal clear picture that where the consumers’ minds are could be entirely different than a com­pany’s executives.

Click refresh on your browser to load this Youtube media coverage or click here.

Millions of people from all over the world have commented online and directly to the company about how they feel it is wrong he was fired.

“There’s no way I’m agreeing with the company. If I see someone dying or they need my help, I’m going to go help them, because that’s my job,” said Zoard Janko, one of lifeguards.

Management’s Additional Mistakes
Leave a drowning man on his own? Does that sound like a positive PR statement?

That is EXACTLY what newspapers quoted executives saying.

This quote sent people all over the world into a cry that could be heard with millions of comments on online blogs, like this one, and television outlets as well as social media platforms.

Lopez Offered Job Back
The company decided to offer Lopez his job back, and he refused to return.

Why a bad decision? Because executives waited for a public outcry to act and four other lifeguards prior to Lopez had been fired for the same reason. Anyone smell a lawsuit?

DREAMFly Marketing’s Lifeguard Case Ruling
Talk­ing your way out of a controversy is often the worst decision you can make, even if there are two sides to the story.

If it sounds bad, it probably shouldn’t be said. Basic public relations plans include a crisis com­munication plan. A crisis communication plan provides steps for better public rela­tions or public reaction.

Media plans often suggest rather than control media inter­views and direct management, to instead release a statement focused on the posi­tives with few mentions about the contro­versial points.

In this case, a release or statement may have focused on the heroic nature of the company’s life guard who saved a drown­ing man’s life and then towards the end could have discussed briefly a reason for the firing.

PR Communication Plan Lesson Summary
In life as in business, there are few ac­tions that are right or wrong, but a con­sumer’s perception is reality so think hard and fast before you react to a controversy.

Lesson of the week: have a PR plan and keep news positive even if your company is in the hot seat

About Camden Smith

Camden Smith has written 77 posts for Marketing Magnetics.

Camden Smith owns DREAMFly Marketing with 16 years in strategic marketing and television journalism. Her cutting-edge, aggressive marketing skills have earned her numerous awards. Smith lives in Naples, Florida with her daughter London.



  • Sam

    This was probably less a crisis communication problem than a case of a serious management mistake (stupidity?). When an organization plans for crises, it should plan for those events that are most likely to happen. (You do this with a process known as “vulnerability audits” because  you can’t plan for every possible eventuality.) In my 20+ years’ experience in crisis communication planning, I’d never expect — or plan for — a series of events that included a lifeguard leaving his/her duty post to save a life and then getting fired for it. It is a bizarre combination.

    The real problem was that management (not the lifeguard) made a huge error and it is difficult — maybe impossible — to plan for management mistakes of this magnitude. Perhaps the person who needed to be fired was the manager who fired the lifeguard.

    • Camden

      Thanks for the comment. I agree it was mismanagement, however it is part of a crisis and generally crisis communication plans outline steps to respond and reaction and this would definitely qualify.

      This was not an accidental case. This should have been anticipated as I am sure their PR folks warned them about, because they fired 6 other lifeguards over the years for the same reason.

    • Eric Tanner

      Sam, I think it was a crisis for that company because they made it one. I’m just glad they came to their senses eventually. Either way companies really need to have a plan some type of basic set of rules for handling media in general and most of them have more of the no comment or let’s just go with it plan it seems.

  • Monica

    That company had bad leadership – can’t believe they let him go and then offered the job back no wonder the kid didn’t return!

  • Skelly1314

    It just amazes me that companies seem to not react or over-react. A middle of the road plan seems to be the best.

  • Liz1972a

    What do you think companies should do if there really is something controversial they had to decide perhaps not a bad decision like the one listed – how do you explain it?

    • http://dreamflymarketing.com Camden Smith

      Liz,
      I always recommend that if you have a decisions that could be taken wrongly by the public, consumers, board members or other members of the public it is always best to do a preemptive strike.

      By this I mean, create a press release and/or a statement addressing the issue head on and then focus on one positive like we mentioned in the blog. Of course if you are dealing with death you don’t focus on positives only responsibility but other than life/death issues you can state the bad and end with the good quite easily.

      I have also always been a believer if a company is making a controversial decision it is best to recognize that it might be taken the wrong way and explain you understand why the public feels this way but then explain why the decision was necessary in a manner which does not challenge the feelings of potential opposition.

      Hope this helps – Camden Smith, DREAMFly Marketing