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The Curious Case of SpongeBob the Tombstone
By: Patrick Foughty, APR
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You run a cemetery; 98 percent of the time you probably have little need for solid public relations. Why? Because your public is no longer among the living. But wait, scratch that, your public has nothing to do with those residing behind the walls — your publics are outside the gates. They’re the loved ones of those on your property. Those left behind. The living.
 
Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio seemed to forget this earlier this week when they told a family they could not use a monument (tombstone) they had not only paid for out of their own pocket, but put serious emotional investment into.
 
Army Sgt. Kimberly Walker died eight months ago (allegedly killed by her boyfriend) after serving two tours in Iraq. Apparently she was one of the biggest SpongeBob SquarePants fans ever. So, in memory of her, her family decided to make her tombstone monument a large statue of the cartoon character — and they thought they had permission. The PR fail came when the cemetery rather coldly said the permission they gave was an unfortunate error in judgment, and that in fact they could not use statue.
 
Opinions vary on the appropriateness of the statue, although this PR guy thinks it's about time we broke out of the old habits of crosses and angels and slabs of rock and pursued images that identified better with the person they're commemorated to. But that's not the issue. The cemetery obviously doesn't agree with me, which is fine, but in doing so has come off as snobby and unsympathetic. Characteristics people in grief should not have to deal with. 
 
Here's what the cemetery should have done:
a) Involve a PR person. Or at least think about the PR aspects of the issue before they made the decision and weighed the risks if the story got out and went viral. All too often organizations, especially small ones that don't normally think about PR, simply make decisions and flippantly go with them. This might've been easier to do in the past, but in the current information environment anything can go viral at any time.
b) Inoculation. There's a saying that’s used as advice for success when working on large staffs, "in order to impress the boss you should be first to the chalkboard." Spring Grove was not first to the chalkboard — the Walker family was. The cemetery should have evaluated why they were saying no and had the director put out a statement or write a letter explaining the situation, the decision, and why, that would be published via its electronic channels (website, email distros, etc.) and even via snail mail to those on a contact list (i.e. people who have purchased plots and expect to be buried there someday) as soon as they informed the family. At the writing of this there was still nothing about this issue on the cemetery website.
c) Strike a deal. If this was the fault of the cemetery and a junior associate authorized something they shouldn't have, then the cemetery should be stepping up to cover the costs. A simple, “We want to express our deepest apologies for misleading the family and we plan to cover the costs of our mistake" would have been a great talking point to use when it went viral. At least better than, "we're working on a plan to 'properly memorialize Kimberly'."  
d) Veteran. The media and the populace are very sensitive to how we treat veterans in this day and age, especially as we wrap up our wars abroad. In this case we have one that served in the wars and appears to be a victim of domestic violence. This doesn't mean the family gets a buy on policy, but it would be foolish to believe this story would have gotten any traction if it was a non-veteran who still lived with her mom and died of heart disease. Bottom line — if you're ever about to make a policy decision that negatively impacts a veteran or a group of veterans, have a PR plan ready.
 
The cemetery's policy is what is. But how they went about the decision and how they failed to incorporate any PR thought into it is a great example of how not to include PR in your day-to-day decision making processes. A practice that is not recommended.


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About the Author
Patrick Foughty is a former helicopter pilot turned PR lover. He pays bills by playing the role of Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. where he manages media operations and digital media for his organization. When he's not thinking about PR he's working on his first novel or studying medieval history.
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