Monday, July 07, 2008

San Antonio Playground Affair is a Case Study in What Not to Do

Twenty-eight days. Four weeks. 672 hours. That’s how long it took for San Antonio’s city manager to stand up and say we are going to repair the city’s playgrounds. Twenty-eight days.

So here's the question. What do you do when a local newspaper or television station unveils your dirt? What do you do when they won't let go of an issue that you haven't solved?

Well the city of San Antonio’s current dangerous playground affair is a case study and exactly what not to do. And it’s still playing out (pardon the pun).

For those who don't know what's going on or don't live San Antonio, here’s the set up. The San Antonio Express-News has been publishing articles revealing the high number of city-owned playgrounds that have gone unrepaired for years, some of which have been rated dangerous. City leaders reacted – to put it mildly – defensively. Their lack of transparency and poor responses are weakening residents’ trust.

Trust buster #1: It all started in April when the city's auditor wanted to conduct an audit of the process the city uses to inspect it's playgrounds. The city committee refused to allow that audit to occur and fired the auditor.

So the city paper started digging and found that the last inspection in 2003 found “15 of 114 inspected playgrounds were so dangerous or substandard that they should be torn down, put off limits to children or extensively repaired.”

Trust buster #2: Many of those playgrounds have still not been repaired and there is no formal process for safety checks.

Trust buster #3: The playgrounds in the worst conditions are located in low-income, high minority sections of the city.

Trust buster #4: City leaders still maintain that an audit isn’t necessary, leading people to wonder what else they have to hide. According to the Express-News, the mayor claimed, “I don’t think Gonzales’ audit would have found a single thing!”

Since some people new beforehand that the Express-News was investigating and would be publishing a story, you would expect city leaders to be prepared to respond. But they weren’t.

Trust buster #5-10: When the first story by Todd Bensman broke on June 9, city leader responses included denials that there is a problem, claims that the auditor was fired for overstepping his bounds (which later articles refuted), sending crews out to wrap plastic yellow construction-zone tape around some playgrounds, a campaign by the city manager to show that playground safety has been well managed and that no serious lapses have endangered children, refusals to talk with reporters, distributing packets to city council members critical of the newspaper reporting, and pointing out that the city has not been sued for injuries to children on its playgrounds.

Everyone in public relations knows the first thing that you do is admit your mistake or misstep or whatever the wrongdoing is, apologize, commit to fixing it and commit to taking actions to keep it from happening again. City leaders did exactly the opposite; they tried to gloss over the multi-pronged problem.

After stumbling along, city leaders eventually began to take better actions to rebuild trust. In my next post, I’ll outline those steps.


Russell G said...

Hi Christie,
I liked your posts on how the City mishandled the bad press regarding the public parks.

What didn't help their case is that they criticized the reporting before they did any checking themselves.

Hopefully the city will learn how to craft a better response to negatve press

Theresa said...


Here is an idea. The City has countless scrap tires right? There is a company just outside SA in Reedville that recycles and re- manufactures the old tires into playground material. 2000 lbs is around $650.

The City, most likely pays to have those tires burned so why not pay to have them recycled which would help the environment and may give them a slight discount on the Playground Mulch for supplying the raw material??

The mulch will last for years and comes in many colors. If the kids fall they bounce. It is ADA approved.

The company is RAD-TEC he work on a project with the City of Corpus.
191 Mill Rd, Reedville, TX 78656
Phone: 512-357-2789 Fax: 512-357-2979
Good Luck

Theresa L. Holland
Corpus Christi, Texas