Division A - Public Relations Programs
Category 5 - Crisis Communication
Conductor Demetrius Fuller: Termination/Criminal Investigation/Vindication
Phelan & Lowry, LTD.

Award of Distinction

Research/Situation Analysis: As publicist to conductor Demetrius Fuller, the immediate need for PR crisis communication and management came into play in a matter of one phone call. A reporter with a major regional daily newspaper informed us that Okaloosa-Walton College, Fuller’s then employer, had initiated a criminal investigation against him. Situational Analysis - Termination: Demetrius Fuller was music director and conductor of the Northwest Florida Symphony at Okaloosa-Walton Community College (OWC) in Niceville, FL from July 2002, until his suspension by OWC in December 2005, and subsequent termination a month later in January 2006. Criminal Investigation: On December 15, OWC communicated their intent to initiate a criminal investigation of Fuller by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Department directly to the NW Florida Daily News. Fuller first became aware of this criminal investigation with the reporter’s phone call. These charges were financially related. Vindication: On March 13, 2006, after 3 months of investigation, the Florida State Attorney’s office officially cleared Fuller stating there were no prosecutable charges. Research – Though obviously research did not occur prior to this situation, it did come into play in answering all reporter’s questions and allegations, which were plentiful, throughout the criminal investigation. As well, as publicist, it was my professional role to have some very direct conversations with my client to understand this entire complex situation and a lot of time was expended to prepare reports and documentation for Fuller’s attorney and all reporter inquiries.
Fuller, only 29 at the time, had always maintained a high public profile, was well respected and positioned in the cultural community, and had achieved great career success guest conducting globally in addition to conducting the OWC orchestra. Another challenge to this case was the fact that until the law enforcement’s criminal investigation was completed, Fuller’s criminal attorney instructed Fuller to exercise great caution in speaking with any media as it could create very negative future ramifications. Accordingly, many of the carefully worded statements had to be made on his behalf by the publicist. It is important to note this case played out before the public in newspapers and magazine throughout the NW Florida region, it was not a private investigation behind closed doors.

Objectives: This crisis communications case clearly carried with it the objective of prioritizing and reacting to the immediate situation at hand as the facts rapidly unfolded. The continual objectives throughout the entire 3 month process were to represent and position Fuller in the best possible manor in order to #1) maintain his professional credibility, #2) make sure his positive reputation remained intact before the eyes of his supporters and the community, #3) ensure future career security, and #4) develop significant media relationships in order that Fuller’s position would always be clearly communicated and fairly represented in the press articles that prevailed. The most major objective was to, #5) take the high road and maintain his professional integrity.

Implementation: Despite major newspaper “above the fold” front page headlines of A low note for maestro, Lawmen look into Fuller and finances, It’s the final curtain for Fuller, and more, we kept in constant communication with the media by being completely available to them at all times. Keeping Fuller in the public eye in a positive way was achieved via informal gatherings such as “Coffee With The Conductor” with both the media and public invited to attend. Numerous press releases were initiated to be truthful and keep the communication and facts out there, including one release that was “A Clarification of Statements in Print Articles” as the media continually misreported the facts. It was imperative that as Fuller’s publicist, I was with him at all times in public settings. We went to Holiday social gatherings, professional business functions and Fuller kept a guest conducting engagement in Brazil. He held his head high, faced the issues at hand and continued to garner great support in the face of significant public character disparagement.

Evaluation: A confusing and complex story to communicate continually remained before the public for a 3 month period, with Fuller ultimately emerging victorious and held in high regard by his supporters and the public. Almost 50 newspaper, magazine and TV stories occurred during this time period. As well, 20+ letters to editors in various publications were written by the public in support of Fuller. The real vindication came with the clearing of any wrong-doing by law enforcement, a position we had maintained throughout the investigation. Because of a thorough ‘courting’ of Fuller to the public and the media, the positive results made it to the front pages of the papers with headlines such as Official: Fuller won’t be charged, State clears Fuller, No charges to be filed against Fuller. In fact, the strong relationships forged with the media resulted in Fuller’s side being represented fairly in all stories that were printed. Four months later, Fuller launched Sinfonia Gulf Coast with an inaugural sold-out concert featuring Broadway legend, Bernadette Peters, indeed successfully achieving all of the objectives in this summary, and most importantly, objective #5) with Fuller taking the high road and maintaining his professional integrity.

Budget: Quite frankly, there was no budget for this unanticipated crisis communication case. As Fuller’s publicist, I believed so much in the person and the music, the time expended to handle his case was done on a pro-bono basis. This was a case that involved public relations in its purest form – writing, relationships and believing in the ‘product’.