Friday, October 29, 2010

Each year at this time I think of the Halloween Parade years ago where a public relations fiasco proved that you must keep your eye on the ball, or at least on Elvis!

It was 1986 and I was working in the public relations department of a large New Jersey hospital. The department director, let’s call her Margaret, was known for her excruciatingly attention to detail. It always paid off because the events she planned turned out to be successful. Except for one.

For the first time in years, the decision was made to have the hospital participate in what was known as the largest Halloween Parade held outside of Greenwich Village. Margaret recognized the potential impact of a well-designed and eye-catching float and set about to plan something that would present a positive image to the hundreds of marchers and watchers along Main Street.

Everyone took part in the parade - the mayor and local politicians led it off and they were followed by the local high school band, civic organizations, community businesses, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, even mothers and fathers hand-in-hand with their costumed children, and, of course, fire trucks from all the fire companies in town.

Planning for the hospital’s float began in late August with a trip to the Atlantic City company that provided floats for the annual Miss America Pageant on the boardwalk. Margaret’s idea involved building steps on the float that would mark the increase in hospital beds during the hospital’s history. To designate 1961, the year of its opening, a hospital employee donned an Elvis Presley costume. And to mark the 210th anniversary of the birth of America, another employee dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

As the crowds found their favorite spots on the curbs along the parade route, all the floats gathered in the local shopping center. Elvis and the Statue of Liberty were in place, ready to roll. Margaret directed her staff to walk along Main Street and hand out little white puffy things that had the hospital’s name on them. She, too, decided to leave the float once the driver pulled it out onto the street.

Now Margaret, as I said, paid very close attention to detail. And just in case something should go wrong, she always had an alternate plan. Never thinking that something could go wrong, she joined the crowds on Main Street, and waited for the hospital’s float to pass by.

While Margaret was distancing herself from the float, she was unaware that it had gotten a flat tire almost as soon as it began its trek down the street. The float driver did not realize that a spare was available or that the company’s owner was nearby ready to make any repairs. So the driver told Elvis and Miss Liberty to hop off. Elvis took his guitar, Miss Liberty lowered her torch and they jumped off the float and mingled with the crowd.

Meantime, the flat had been fixed. But Elvis and Miss Liberty had disappeared. So the hospital float drove down Main Street while onlookers tried to figure out its meaning.

The local television station had its cameras set up a few blocks away for a live broadcast. The TV reporter, also not getting the float’s complete message, was kind enough to pass over it quickly. The taped version, however, continued to be replayed for weeks.

At the end of the parade where all the floats and participants gathered, Margaret was in a tirade. She screamed at the float company owner and driver and didn’t acknowledge her mistake in leaving the float. The float company owner told her he had looked for her to tell her the flat would be fixed and that the float would move on intact.

One slip. One misjudgment from a woman who never let any detail go unsupervised.