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Editor's Page: Facing Reality After West Warwick

One of the smartest guys I know—a fellow named Allen Carrier--is in public relations, and when he talks, I listen. His Rule No. 1: Perception is reality.

The tragic February fire in West Warwick, R.I., in which 99 nightclub patrons lost their lives due to an illegal pyro display, has created a public relations crisis for the special event profession. (See our article on the aftermath for our industry, in this issue.)

Event clients are now wary about special effects in general, and indoor pyro in particular. Crowd management is now a worry; the West Warwick incident showed that panicked people often try to exit the same way they came in, even though another exit may be closer. The awareness of risk itself is high; a caterer tells us that shortly after the West Warwick fire, a nervous client called to double-check that the event linen was all fire-retardant. (It was.)

We can argue that this perception is unfair. The West Warwick pyro display had no licensed pyro technician, no fire marshal approval, no resemblance to what event professionals do. Having this needless, excruciating tragedy impact event professionals is unfair.

But it doesn't matter that it's unfair. What matters is, it's happening. The industry has two choices, my PR friend reminds us: Face the problem or deny it.

When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989, spilling 10 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, the company's top officials were widely criticized for their delay in visiting the site and acknowledging the extent of the damage. The CEO waited almost a full week before even commenting on the environmental disaster, and the company blamed state and federal officials for the delay in cleaning up the mess. The company paid billions in cleanup costs and fines, and watched as customers, angered by what they saw as a cavalier attitude, cut up their credit cards and mailed the pieces to the CEO.

In contrast, back in 1982 when someone put cyanide into bottles of Tylenol, killing seven people, maker Johnson & Johnson acted quickly. The company told consumers to stop using the product and recalled more than 31 million bottles. Harkening back to his company's 40-year-old customer-service credo, the CEO maintained a high media profile. At first, Tylenol fell from having 35 percent of the nonprescription pain-reliever market to only 8 percent. But within a year sales rebounded, and the product is now the top-selling analgesic in America.

Special event professionals did nothing to create the West Warwick tragedy, but they have to deal with it. And they are, with a call for planning, communication and adherence to the highest standards of safety. And they will triumph in the end.

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