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April 25, 2011
Spokespeople Need To Know About Beavers
 
Here's why organizations shouldn't let untrained, unauthorized employees take media calls. In Harrisburg, Pa., the state capitol, the downtown area, including the capitol complex, was without water for several days last week after a demolition contractor ruptured a water main by accident. When the Associated Pess called the firm, United Demolition and Excavating, of Clarence, N.Y., an employee (presumably untrained and unauthorized) advised the AP that the pipe may have been damaged by beavers. What? gasped the community. The comment produced a headline in The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News the next day: "Look out for pipe-gnawing beavers?"

United Demolition was already facing possible exposure to a six-figure repair and cleanup bill for the broken main that left center city Harrisburg and the state capitol barely functional. Now the presumably unauthorized comment had brought ridicule upon it as well. What do you think its chances might be in court as a result?

"The beaver defense," reported The Patriot-News, "did not appear to be gaining any immediate traction. A state Game Commission spokesman asked about the remark called the claim ludicrous, noting that beavers are vegetarians that eat tree bark and leaves."

On a later call to United, this one by The Patriot-News itself, an employee for the contractor (don't know whether it was the same one AP got or not) "said he was 'lawyered up' and could not comment." Hey, that's progress.

Seriously, it's practically self-evident that accurate, responsible media quotes have to be given thought and provided by employees who understand the media's needs and don't get flustered when a reporter calls. Especially when everyone knows that beavers build dams, but don't excavate water systems.

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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