Melissa Carrick was looking forward to having a fun and educational summer as an Ohio State Fair public relations and marketing intern in which she’d be responsible for tasks such as writing blog posts about quirky events and being a fair food taste tester. Now, her resume also includes invaluable crisis communication skills attained through tragedy.
The University of Findlay senior was at the fairgrounds on July 26 when a ride malfunctioned, killing an 18-year-old man and injuring seven. According to numerous media reports, the Fire Ball ride, featuring a large swinging gondola, broke apart in mid-air. Tyler Jarrell was tossed 50 feet, and died of blunt force trauma injuries.
The Dispatch in Columbus reported investigators determined the malfunction was caused by “excessive corrosion.”
Carrick said at the time of the accident, she was in the fair’s media command center, which was not near the rides, but could hear sirens approaching. “Right then, the phones immediately began ringing off the hook,” she said.
“We were receiving calls from reporters in New York, Chicago, from CNN, asking what was going on.” Contact information was requested so that fair staffers could get back to media representatives when they had more information.
Public relations and marketing interns, including Carrick, were placed in charge of all initial media relations duties, particularly those that involved escorting media to and from the fairgrounds, assisting with staging a press conference area and hosting a media tour a few days later. Interns also worked to ensure that media members were getting enough to eat and drink while there, attention that was appreciated.
Access for news dissemination was carefully weighed with crime scene investigative needs and consideration to those who were directly and indirectly affected by the accident.
“We worked to hold all media to the same standards” so that none were favored over others, Carrick explained. “We respected the importance of their jobs and worked to maintain respect for the crime scene. It was a lot of back and forth,” on golf carts and communicatively, she said.
Fair personnel had to rapidly switch publicity gears while working with those from Ohio Governor John Kasich’s office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies that were necessary components of aftermath response.
Typical marketing and media coverage from the fair was adjusted. Planned social media content – all of it upbeat and entertaining – was temporarily halted, and online responses were monitored for a variety of reasons, including accuracy of information being circulated by others.
“There was a lot of misinformation that circulated after the accident about the number of people who had died and about what had happened,” the Sycamore, Ohio native said. “Of course, there was a video. People were quick to place blame. So we had to get our responses and statements ready quickly.”
Days later, the fair’s publicity efforts shifted to a focus on its core reason for existing – children. With livestock shows and sales and entertainment geared toward young people, the Ohio State Fair touted its roots as a way for people to continue appreciating the event while healing.
Carrick’s day had begun at 3 a.m. and lasted well after midnight. At one point, she took a short recovery nap on the office floor.
“I ended up working 40 hours from start to finish.
“We learned crisis communication in the worst way possible. Someone had died and people were injured, so it was under deplorable circumstances,” Carrick noted.
The Ohio State Fair, however, had a solid crisis response plan in place. Carrick and other interns attended a specific crisis communication meeting, where they were trained with the plan prior to the fair’s opening. The plan was followed during and after the accident.
Also taking place afterward was counseling for all fair staffers.
Her supervisor, Alicia Shoults, PR and marketing director for the Ohio Expo Center and Ohio State Fair, apologized to the interns for “having to go through this,” Carrick said. Schultz herself had camped out at the fairgrounds for the duration, and was also caring for her baby.
Carrick characterized the experience as “surreal.”
“I watched the video. That’s hard to forget. It changed the whole feeling of the fair. Everyone will still be impacted for years to come. It’s hard to move past something like that,” she said.
And yet her summer internship work helped solidify the career goals that she had already developed. Working in public relations is her destiny, she said.
“I was undecided for two years until I got interested in public relations. It (fair accident) really confirmed for me that this is what I want to do. Maybe not media relations, but maybe social media marketing.
Carrick will graduate in December, and plans to enroll in the University of Findlay’s online MBA Program.