Lessons Learned from an Accidental Death

The aftermath of the ride accident at the Ohio State Fair discussed during IAFE

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: December 6, 2017

Bob Johnson, OABA; David Margulies, Margulies Communications Group; Alicia Shoults, Ohio State Fair; and E.J. Dean, Fiesta Shows, moderator.

REPORTING FROM LAS VEGAS — The Fireball ride accident in July at the 2017 Ohio State Fair, which killed one and injured four, made international headlines this fair season. The mantra from those who lived the tragedy from the business end was “be ready” and know “this is your business,” take care of your key audience first.

While the police and fire departments and the governor’s office are dealing with the bigger issues and the media, the venue should be focusing on informing their business partners and peers as to what is happening.

It was a by-the-book crisis communication effort from the get-go, but simply beyond comprehension until you’ve lived through it, said Alicia Shoults, Ohio State Fair, who spoke at the International Association of Fairs & Expositions convention here Nov. 26-30.

“We had a safety meeting two weeks before this happened [on opening day of the fair] and, as a result of that meeting, our first aid, highway patrol and off-site emergency services were all on the same radio channel, so everyone was told at once,” Shoults recalled.

It is amazing how quickly things happen, Shoults said. “We knew we had to notify social media,” she said of first responses, because everyone on site had their cellphone out and was taking pictures. The chatter was deafening. “We needed some acknowledgement from an official source.”

She also advised others involved in tragic incidents like this to “stay in your lane, your area of expertise. Don’t step on others’ toes.” The investigation into the cause of the accident and details on the injured, that’s for the police department, not the fair.

At the initial press conference, the fair kept a check-in sheet so they could follow up with media on hand and tied all sound into a multibox so there was only one mike at the podium.

“It’s important to express grief, but not take ownership of that grief,” Shoults said. “It’s not our turn to grieve; it’s the family’s turn. It’s not about us.”

One of the things Shoults needed most was people. As the national media descended on Columbus, she was calling on friends and colleagues around the industry to help. “I never realized I’d need so many people just to wrangle the media.”

She found it best to keep crisis files on Dropbox, everything from talking points to clippings and background, for easy access for multiple needs. She also advised colleagues facing crisis management to be cognizant of all advertising and promotional materials that are out there. “The Fireball was in our TV ads, albeit for less than a second, and that had to change.”

To accommodate the press, they immediately established a media staging area in a parking lot that had a view of rides for TV shots, but “not the shot,” not the Fireball. They surrounded the Fireball with tractor-trailers so the view was obstructed.

She understood the need to “feed the beast,” the media has a job to do, so they established a website, OhioStateFair.com/media-fireball. It’s still up.

They took the press on a tour of the grounds en masse the day after the accident. “Everyone tried to run off and get other shots,” she said. On day 2, the press tour was a golf cart tour. The goal for the fair was fair and equal coverage for everyone.

“Be aware of anniversaries (one month, two months, one year) and events,” she added. The memorial for the deceased was on Day 5 of the fair and the funeral was on Day 6. The fair was lowkey. No decision has been made yet on what to do when the 2018 fair opens, whether the moment of silence will be on day one because it was opening day in 2017, or day two, the actual one-year anniversary.

David Margulies, The Margulies Communications Group, advised managers to enlist a third voice in issues like this. For the Ohio State Fair, that was the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA). Bob Johnson, OABA president, said he couldn’t get off the phone for a week after the ride accident.

“It was incredible how fast it went viral worldwide,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s first reaction was to contact the carnival owner and Margulies, review the Industry Safety Statistics and Carnival Rides website and develop a spiel for the media calls. It’s important to know that American Society for Testing and Materials standards become regulation standards and inspections are based on ASTM standards.

This was a wake up call, as any accident would be, and the industry is still looking at all equipment and how it might relate to the issue here and many states had to get out in front of the issue, which impacted fairs all down the line post-Ohio.

Margulies added that employees need to know what to do when someone puts a cellphone in front of their face during a crisis. He recommended having a “what to do if…” list ready to distribute in case of an accident. “To the media, anyone who works for you is a spokesperson,” Margulies said.

He also advises his clients against taking center stage. “In a crisis like this, you don’t need to say anything. The police and fire departments are trained to deal with that. You make sure they have the information, but it’s not your turn to hold a news conference.”

It is your turn to reach out to your key audience, from vendors to insurance companies to other fairs and carnivals, he said. “There needs to be strong follow-up.” Other rides were shut down worldwide and the manufacturers were making modifications to similar rides.

The industry is now looking at new testing protocols to combat internal corrosion, which was determined to be the cause, Margulies said. The rides were inspected according to current safety protocols and passed. It’s important to use third-party experts to corroborate those claims.

It was determined early on that there was no operator error “and we focused on that, what the investigations said,” Margulies said. There will always be false rumors to combat, particularly given the social media aspect of news today.

First and foremost, “the focus in on keeping your business, not going after every reporter you don’t like,” Margulies said. “Your business is much more important to you than the media.”

The ride is still shut down, four months later.

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: December 6, 2017