Imagine thousands of history buffs lining the Plymouth, Massachusetts harbor in 1957, waiting for the arrival of a Mayflower replica. The ship sinks before Pilgrim re-enactors can board. That never happened, but in essence, something similar occurred to the replica of Fort Clatsop on the Oregon Coast. In October 2005, the fort was set to be center stage for the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s arrival at the Pacific. But the fort was destroyed by fire.
The goal was to preserve the reputation of the newly formed Lewis and Clark National Historic Park headquartered at the fort. A beloved Oregon icon, news of the fort’s early morning blaze captured the lead spot in local news coverage. It was an intensely covered story in the Northwest for weeks. Complicating matters, the park service and the State of Oregon were rushing to complete the six-mile Fort-To-Sea Trail as a legacy of the bicentennial.
Less than a year earlier, CFM helped the park service and Fort-to-Sea Trail team create a crisis communications plan. Bad news scenarios were created for the trail building project. Key messages, contact lists and staff assignments were developed. The park supervisor took the plan to heart, and thoroughly discussed it with staff. When the fort replica burned late at night, the fort staff borrowed pages from the trail crisis plan and put it to work.
TV crews, newspaper reporters and Oregon’s Governor arrived at the park early the next morning. Park superintendent Chip Jenkins commanded a calm, clear set of messages despite experiencing a profound sense of loss. The park service maintained its credibility, even when it was discovered a spark from a candle accidently started the blaze, and not arson as first thought. The National Park Service says CFM’s advance work helped it survive the crisis and preserve its reputation.