Keeping Your Horse Farm Afloat

Keeping Your Horse Farm Afloat

The bad news is many equine facilities or organizations simply aren't prepared to handle the public relations and media outreach required following a catastrophic event or natural disaster. The good news is that preparation is the easiest part.


Set up a stronger communications plan to help your farm or business survive in the event of a disaster

With cell phone cameras in nearly every hand and a world hyperconnected by social media and the Internet, news of a crisis can spread quickly. If not managed well, a catastrophic occurrence and the resulting news or social media exposure can cause nearly irreparable damage to a horse business, event, or brand.

The bad news is many equine facilities or organizations simply aren't prepared to handle the public relations (PR) and media outreach required following a catastrophic event or natural disaster. The good news is that preparation is the easiest part.

A Barn Fire Tragedy
In the wee hours of May 31, 2011, a barn caught fire at True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa. Six of 11 horses inside died, and four were rushed to the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School’s New Bolton Center for emergency veterinary treatment; several of the surviving horses were in critical condition.

A barn fire is a disaster and a tragedy at any farm, but in this case the public's interest level was extremely high; Olympic eventing gold medalist Phillip Dutton owns the farm, and fellow U.S. Equestrian Team member Boyd Martin, also an eventer, and his wife, Grand Prix dressage rider Silva, were renting the barn that ignited. One of the horses in intensive care was Olympic prospect Neville Bardos.

News of the fire spread quickly via the Internet, with word going out on blogs within hours after the fire started. Equine organizations and groups sent out news releases recounting the event that same day. However, despite the fact that the Martin team operates in the upper eschelons of the sport with a PR team on board, their publicist notes they weren’t necessarily prepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude and the resulting media barrage.

Meeting Media Demand
Equestrian writer, publicist, and photographer Amber Heintzberger is one-half of the team handling the Martins' public relations and communications. Working with Lisa Thomas of Mid-Atlantic Equestrian Services, Heintzberger says in the days immediately following the fire they were simply scrambling to get the facts out to the media and handle all the journalist inquiries.

"This was beyond the scope of anything we had imagined, so we didn't really have a plan," says Heintzberger. "Boyd had to first call the owners of the horses that died in the fire and notify the Neville Bardos syndicate members. The surviving horses were his next priority, so he spent a lot of time at New Bolton Center; he kept Lisa and I informed by phone, and he also stayed in touch with his friend John Thier, who is behind (a site that reported updates in the tragedy's wake)."

Heintzberger canceled or delayed other projects to field the onslaught of media phone and e-mail inquiries. Still, it was stressful. "In the end everything worked out fine, but Boyd was so busy with the horses, and we wanted him to have time and space to absorb the whole shocking incident, that it was difficult to determine how often to call for updates," she says.

Front-Page News
The True Prospect barn fire is just one of a slew of high-profile equine crises that have made international news in recent years. Other tragedies, such as horse or rider fatalities and farms affected by flooding and tornadoes, have also attracted worldwide attention. In the past only equine publications or regional mainstream outlets might have covered these types of events, but with the increase in internationally read blogs and other websites, combined with the viral spread of news through social media, these stories can reach a much larger global audience within a few hours.

Sarah Skerik, vice president of social media at PR Newswire, a press release distribution and monitoring organization, says the world is very different today for equine businesses and events in terms of visibility. "Even if you only do business within a 25-mile radius, there are people on Facebook and other social networking sites that can share a story very quickly," she explains. "Getting connected and being visible on these types of sites are very important for an equestrian brand, since they’re resources for having a voice and getting your own story out."

Ultimately, news stories and how they're handled can also affect how nonequestrians view the horse world and whether they lend their support. It's just another reason to establish a crisis communication plan, updating it periodically in response to changes in global communication and social media.

News spreads more rapidly than ever these days, and making sure the timely information getting out is not only accurate but also reaching the correct media channels can be a struggle even with a plan, says Michelle Dunn, press officer for Toronto's Royal Horse Show.

"Everyone is so accustomed to instant information, and sometimes it can seem like knowledge is being withheld when in fact it's really not," she explains. "The logistics of how a crisis plays out, such as a horse dying on course, means there are many levels and layers of people involved, such as the (FEI) ground jury, veterinarians, officials, and so forth. Identifying the facts simply takes time."

Dunn advises that regular communication with media outlets and horse industry members in the hours immediately following a crisis is key, even if it seems like you have no new information to report. She recommends handling questions as swiftly and directly as possible and providing frequent official updates, "so it doesn't appear that you're sitting on information just because it's unpleasant. There's not much we can do to prevent images and words from being circulated, especially on social media, but if people can't access the right information they'll just post what they have, which could be rumor or just flat out wrong."

Lessons Learned
Because many people view horses as they would family members or pets, those instances involving equine deaths and injuries tug at the public's heartstrings and influence public perception significantly. Skerik says those responsible for equestrian crisis communication can look to the best cases within the mainstream consumer world for a road map.

"Anyone in public relations management holds up the 1982 Tylenol scandal, when bottles were tampered with and capsules were injected with cyanide (resulting in several deaths), as the 'textbook case' in how to handle crisis public relations the right way," reports Skerik.

Manufacturer Johnson & Johnson was faced with handling that crisis and warning consumers in order to avoid additional deaths, all without damaging the brand's reputation.

"The hallmarks of the Tylenol response were transparency, speed of reaction, and personal responsibility or apology. When you look at high-profile equestrian disasters, the ones that have been handled in the best manner also possess those qualities," she says, citing the example of Barbaro's breakdown in the 2006 Preakness Stakes.

"I'd been following Barbaro's career and had seen him win at the Kentucky Derby that year. After his injury, I followed the ongoing media attention," says Skerik, who adds that she was impressed with the communication from both personal and professional perspectives.

"I admired the immediate response of the television network (and the American Association of Equine Practitioners' On Call program), who had a veterinarian on hand to explain what happened, and the way New Bolton Center handled post-surgical communications," she says. "It was evident they were paying attention to the public's desire for news about Barbaro. Plus, the utter transparency was really smart and very well-executed, generating a ton of great publicity and good will for the owners and for the racing industry, despite the final outcome.”

Getting Connected & Establishing the Plan
Communication that appears as easy and effortless as the New Bolton PR response requires a great deal of planning. Getting started, Dunn says one of the most important internal communication resources is a comprehensive telephone list, with several contacts for each horse in a barn. "Especially if you’re providing overnight stabling at an event, make sure you have information for multiple people on the team--groom, rider, and an alternate," she advises. "You never know what might happen."

Also have an external communications network in place. Depending on the size of your operation or event, it can be as simple as a telephone tree. "The horse world is very connected, and we can mobilize very quickly to spread the word or round up help, such as delivering hay to horses stranded by flooding," says Skerik. "So as part of a planning process, I would get together with some of my peers and talk through what would happen if, say, a tornado came through and a barn was destroyed. How would we help each other?"

Once you’ve gathered community and peer connections, identify other available resources, such as online crisis planning tools (see sidebar) or workshops on how to interact with the media.

"Boyd and I actually attended a United States Eventing Association Convention seminar where a TV reporter gave riders tips on how to handle interviews with the media," says Heintzberger. "She covered things like how to respond to reporters' questions appropriately. That knowledge was certainly helpful after the fire."

She adds that it's also important to "have someone who can handle the media inquiries (a media 'point person'), so that the person dealing with the crisis can focus on handling the situation in the best way possible (rather than managing the PR aspect of the situation as well)."

Here's an outline of steps to get you rolling on your own crisis communication plan:

  • Read online crisis communication planning resources and examples;
  • Work with individuals such as your insurance agent, agriculture extension office, and local colleagues to create a plan;
  • Think through possible scenarios, and make note of information you'll need;
  • Create a plan document, have backups in multiple places (including online in the "cloud"), and update your plan periodically;
  • Consider holding "crisis drills" with your other crisis plan members;
  • Establish a chain of communication or telephone tree, with backups for each person in case they're directly affected and unable to respond;
  • Set up multiple communication outlets--website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter--and establish relationships with news release outlets and pertinent media contacts in case one option is down or unavailable; and
  • Get professional crisis communications or public relations advice if you need it.

The Recovery
Tying up loose ends after a crisis is just as important as communicating during the acute phase, but it's often forgotten in the rush to get back to everyday life.

Writing and sharing a recap of the event creates a historical record that might even help with future planning, while a ¬discussion meeting while everything is still fresh can help those involved identify what worked and what didn't. And don’t forget thank-yous and acknowledgements, especially for those that pitched in to help.

"The outpouring of support for everyone affected by the fire was huge," says Heintzberger. "Making sure everyone felt that their contributions mattered was really important."

About the Author

Lisa Kemp

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