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