Thursday, July 23, 2009

Examining Cemetary Owner's Crisis Communication Plan

PR junkie has a great article today about the crisis communication plan of that cemetary owner in Illinois. When is it too late to perform crisis communications after employees at the cemetary dug up graves and resold plots for cash?

Perhaps you’ve heard about the Burr Oak cemetery near Alsip, IL, an outlying suburb of Chicago. It has dominated the headlines in Chicago, as law enforcement officials conduct criminal investigations into the matter.

The cemetery is owned by Perpetua Holdings of Illinois, which is not implicated in the matter. In fact, police reportedly first learned of the grave-reselling scheme when Perpetua contacted the police six weeks ago about possible financial wrongdoing among employees.

When the story first broke last week, Perpetua only commented on the matter through an attorney.

“Perpetua Holdings of Illinois, Inc. has owned the cemetery since 2001,” WGN Radio reported. “Trudi McCollum Foushee, a Missouri-based attorney for company president Melvin Bryant of Richardson, Texas, would only confirm the company went to police, triggering the investigation.”

According to reports, Perpetua has done little to help the investigation—or its reputation. On Tuesday, Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, which includes Alsip (and Chicago), had some harsh words for the company.

The Chicago Sun-Times' Natashi Korecki reported:

“There is nobody running the cemetery right now, other than me," Dart said at an afternoon news conference. Dart, who has more than 200 sheriff's deputies either investigating or assisting families seeking answers at the cemetery, said the cemetery owner has failed to send assistance.
Cemetery workers have been asking Dart when to take a lunch break, and when to go home for the day, he said.
Dart said his requests for help from the owners have fallen on deaf ears.
"We don't get a response," Dart said. "They know the address, we haven't seen them."

However, a spokesman for the owners denied the sheriff’s claim and said they are simply trying to stay out of detectives' way, the ABC affiliate in Chicago reported.

Also on Tuesday, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes froze the funds of Perpetua.

Perhaps it was the sheriff’s harsh words, or the frozen funds, but on Tuesday Perpetua Holdings President Melvin Bryant issued a statement (pasted below) through the Dallas-based public relations firm Focus Communications.

Focus, which offers a number of communications services including PR, prides itself on the work it has done with and for multi-racial groups and communities. According to the Focus Web site:

From municipal representation to gaining additional respect and credibility within multi-cultural communities, to executing that special event that distinguishes a client company or product different from others, fresh thinking is at the centerpiece of our work. Over the years, we have developed and facilitated very close and meaningful partnerships for our clients with many minority advocacy organizations including the National Urban League, NAACP, LULAC, the National Conference of Black Mayors, National Minority Supplier Development Council and the National Council of La Raza among others.

That expertise is needed, it seems, because Burr Oak Cemetery is the final resting place of many famous African-Americans, including lynching victim Emmett Till, blues singers Willie Dixon, Dinah Washington and Otis Spann, as well as Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson. Most of the unearthed bodies were those of African-Americans.

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