My Burn Story: A Crisis Communications Case Study
On June 24, 2008, my life changed when an eight gallon bucket of scalding chicken stock came tumbling down on my feet and ankles.
More on that – and the story of how the responsible party cost itself a lot of money through a flawed crisis communications strategy – in a moment.
First, the background. I’ve always loved cooking, and in 2008 decided to up my game by registering for professional cooking classes at New York’s French Culinary Institute. I continued to run my company during the day, and spent three evenings per week learning how to cook.
One night about five months into the class, I was cubing pork in the kitchen. Behind me, the chef-instructor began straining chicken stock by placing a bucket on top of an upside-down hotel pan. Unfortunately, the bottom of the bucket was larger than the hotel pan’s top, and the unevenly placed bucket toppled.
I was about four feet away, my back to the bucket. I felt something hit my body, but it took my brain a couple of seconds to process what had happened. When the pain finally hit, it struck like a lightning bolt. I yelped, ran into a back hallway, and removed my shoes, socks, and pants. But it was too late. My socks had absorbed the hot liquid and held it against my feet for more than 30 seconds.
The school’s instructors called an ambulance and quickly placed my feet in an ice bath. I should have remembered that the school’s instruction manual specifically said not to use ice for a burn since it can deepen a burn, but I was in shock. The school’s instructors – the very people who taught that critical safety lesson to students on the first day of class – also forgot that lesson.
I spent two weeks in the New York Presbyterian Hospital Burn Unit. I couldn’t walk. And I won’t describe the pain, other than to say that Morphine and Percocet didn’t touch it.
As friends and family visited my hospital room, many of them asked whether I was going to sue the school for what clearly was their fault. I said no. I’ve always looked askance at America’s litigious culture, and didn’t want to be part of our flawed legal system. Accidents happen, I thought.
But no one from the French Culinary Institute called to see how I was doing. Day one, nothing. Day two, not a word. Still, I resisted calls from friends to speak with an attorney.
Finally, on day three, the school’s registrar called. I may have a word or two wrong, but the conversation went almost exactly like this:
Registrar: “How are you?”
Me: “Not good.”
Registrar: “Do you have insurance?”
Me, taken aback: “I thought the school’s student insurance policy covered accidents at the school?”
Registrar (scoffing/laughing): “No. We’re you’re secondary insurance.”
It was at that very moment that I decided to sue the school. By making it abundantly clear from the start that the school’s priority was their bottom line and not my health, I decided I should knock off the martyr act and prioritize my own self-interest.
Since this is a media training blog, here’s where the school went wrong from a crisis communications perspective:
1. They Waited Too Long: Despite suffering what many chefs told me was the worst injury in the history of the school, the school waited until my third day in the hospital to make its first official contact. The silence was deafening.
2. They Prioritized Self-Interest: If the registrar had to bring up insurance during our first phone call, why did she make it her second question and accompany her response with a scoffing laugh? Shouldn’t she have registered more genuine concern first?
3. They Didn’t Do Everything They Could Have: If I was advising a client in this situation, I would tell them to say something like this to the burn patient:
“You’re part of our family. We’re going to send meals from the school to you every day you’re in the hospital so you don’t have to eat hospital food. And please let me know if you have any special requests.”
Had the school done any of the above, I might not have sued, and the school’s insurance company could have saved some cash.
Once released from the hospital (still unable to walk without assistance), my quest for justice intensified as the school continued to mangle the situation. They refused to refund the prepaid portion of my tuition, didn’t reimburse my out-of-pocket expenses as promised, failed to use safety equipment that could have prevented the accident, didn’t conduct new safety courses to address burn care, and lied during the deposition (fortunately, my chef-instructor and her supervisor contradicted one another in their sworn testimony).
My attorney, Charles Gayner (the type of guy you want on your side if you’ve been wronged) kept fighting for a fair settlement – and we finally agreed to accept the other side’s offer last month, just hours before jury selection was set to begin. They clearly seemed to realize their case was a loser.
Today, more than three years after the accident, I’m okay. It’s still a bit uncomfortable to stand motionless for long periods of time, so packed trains and cocktail parties can be challenging. But if you didn’t know this story, you’d never know it by looking at me. I can hide my symptoms fine.
I could have added a number four to the above list, as well.
4. No One Said “I’m Sorry:” Yes, I know the standard playbook says not to admit guilt, and that doing so can lead to the termination of your insurance policy. Therefore, for legal reasons, I didn’t expect the French Culinary Institute to apologize. But now that the case has settled and the school is protected against any future claims, they still haven’t apologized. UPDATE: See comment section for an update.
One final note: The school’s insurance company could have legally prevented me from writing this story by requesting a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement. I was prepared to sign it, but they never requested it. As a result, the school will likely suffer additional – and completely unnecessary – reputational damage. I’m delighted the insurance company didn’t ask for it – but as a crisis counselor, I’m stunned by their oversight.