Managing a Sudden Corporate Loss
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Holmes Report

Managing a Sudden Corporate Loss

On September 11, 2001, Thoratec COO Thomas Burnett, who had a key role in the REMATCH trial and was a core PR spokesperson, boarded the doomed United Flight 93 that crashed outside of Pittsburgh.

Paul Holmes

In the early fall of 2001, Thoratec Corporation, along with FischerHealth, was gearing up to launch one of the most monumental announcements in the company’s 35-year history.  Highly anticipated results from its clinical trial called REMATCH were about to be unveiled possibly demonstrating for the first time in the U.S. that there is an effective treatment alternative for patients ineligible for heart transplants.  A media tour with Thoratec’s CEO and COO was conducted in advance and everything was set for a mid-September press conference in New York City.  Then disaster stuck.


On September 11, 2001, Thoratec COO Thomas Burnett, who had a key role in the REMATCH trial and was a core PR spokesperson, boarded the doomed United Flight 93 that crashed outside of Pittsburgh.  While Tom was heralded as one of the heroes who overcame the hijackers, his PR team at FischerHealth was reeling from the personal loss.  Not only did we have to re-plan the entire REMATCH campaign, but also protect against a potential business crisis for the company who just lost its COO.  Immediately, Thoratec, FischerHealth and Tom’s wife were bombarded with media calls and Fischer could not afford to miss a beat.
Planning and Objectives
Thoratec was depending on Fischer for advice on how to manage this unexpected media spotlight.  The media had to be accommodated as much as possible while allowing the family, friends and co-workers close to Tom the space they needed to grieve.  By close of business on September 11, FischerHealth had created a PR plan to address Tom’s death. 
Fischer identified the following objectives for the plan:
  • Strike a balance between accommodating the media and providing privacy and peace of mind (media-wise) to Tom’s family
  • Educate media that Tom’s wife was limited in what she could say due to the FBI’s request that recipients of cell calls not disclose information to anyone except the FBI
  • Reassure investors, business partners and other key audiences that Thoratec will remain focused on its business mission by immediately communicating the new business structure and plan of action for operational functions previously handled by Tom.
  • Reassure the financial community that Thoratec’s executive management team was experiences and deep enough to easily be able to handle functions previously under Tom.
  • Alleviate Thoratec personnel from having to handle media inquiries (time, resources, etc)
  • Satiate the media’s requests as fully and as early as possible to reduce the continuous need for interviews and information
  • Redirect the media’s attention back to Thoratec’s original clinical trial business achievements.
Strategic Approach and Execution
To handle any media that might show up at Thoratec, we offered to keep a FischerHealth staff member at their offices.  Additionally, Thoratec was immediately advised to direct all media requests to Fischer who in response, created a standard “media inquiry” call sheet, logged each reporter’s information and handled all requests.  Fischer also compiled a packet of related information that could be emailed for immediate use, including Tom’s photo, his corporate bio, a fact sheet on Thoratec, a statement from the CEO indicating that Thoratec’s management team had been temporarily restructured to continue optimum operating performance, a press release on Tom’s passing and a transcript from a radio interview Tom’s wife had participated in early on September 12.  As more materials were prepared, they were added to the packet.
To alleviate the flood of individual interview requests, Fischer then set up a media audioconference call so that reporters could jointly interview the CEO of Thoratec and get insight into the life Tom led.  A media alert was sent out in advance and an opening statement was prepared for the CEO.  A Q&A document was also prepared for the CEO that mapped out anticipated media questions and suggested responses.  During the conference call, Fischer managed the media line-up.  The transcript of the call was then added to the press packet given out to reporters.  In addition, the audio call was also posted on Thoratec’s Web site.
A memorial fund was established to assist Tom’s family and pay for his daughters’ college education.  Information about the fund was released over the wire and posted on Thoratec’s Web site, and reporters were encouraged to include it in their coverage.  Fischer created a public service announcement about the fund that was distributed to radio stations and follow-up calls were made to encourage placement.
In helping make the most of a bad situation, Fischer obtained hard copies of the most moving print and broadcast coverage.  Fischer contacted these outlets to solicit donated copies (only one asked for payment) to reduce costs and then compiled them for a scrapbook for Tom’s wife and his children.
To date, the memorial fund has risen to several hundred thousand dollars.  In September alone, more than 373 broadcast TV segments, including two Dateline segments, aired and more than 477 print articles ran about Tom.  If Fischer had not effectively satiated the needs of the media, all of these outlets would have bombarded Tom’s family and Thoratec directly, not allowing them the space they needed to mourn their loss.  Within a month, Fischer successfully refocused the media onto the healthcare and business angles of Thoratec’s REMATCH trial just in time for its launch in mid-November.  The PR strategy was restructured and a new spokesperson was trained to fill Tom’s role.  The subsequent REMATCH campaign was quite successful, garnering more than 155 million media impressions and proving that Thoratec could fulfill its business goals as promised during the crisis.
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