2008 Commitment to Excellence Award Winners

On February 5, 2008, Dean Joan Hendricks of the School of Veterinary Medicine presented staff members Gail Luciani and Jennifer Rench with awards for their Commitment to Excellence. Luciani, Director of the Office of Public Relations, and Rench, Communications Specialist, were recognized for their outstanding communications work during Barbaro’s lengthy stay and extensive treatment at the Vet School’s New Bolton Center.

On Saturday, May 20, 2006, Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner and potential Triple Crown winner, was rushed to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for treatment of life-threatening injuries sustained during the running of the Preakness Stakes. Even the most seasoned professional would have been challenged by the media onslaught this generated. Barbaro’s talent and plight captured the attention and concern of the nation. But Gail and Jennifer kept their cool and developed a great communication plan that was sensitive to the needs of the national audience while always keeping a focus on the school’s mandate to educate, heal and further knowledge about veterinary medicine.

The first few days were critical, both for Barbaro and for the team’s ability to set the stage for future communications efforts. Gail and Jennifer had to figure out how to deal with more than a hundred journalists, mostly sports writers, who converged regularly at New Bolton Center. They needed to quickly educate these journalists, the broader media, and the general public on the demands of equine medicine, the advances made by New Bolton Center in this area, and the special care and treatment Barbaro required due to the nature of his injuries. Along with educational handouts about the Vet School and New Bolton Center, Gail and Jennifer conducted tours of the hospital and even included a demonstration of a horse running 35 miles an hour on a treadmill—impressive to even the most hardened sportswriter. They did all this while continuing to support their everyday responsibilities with grace, competence, and commitment.

After the first six hours of surgery, Gail and Jennifer held a press conference to announce that Barbaro had survived, but that he was not out of the woods—and wouldn’t be for a very long time. An extraordinary level of interest remained as Barbaro’s treatment continued, so Gail and Jennifer worked directly with the experts at New Bolton Center and Barbaro’s owners, to send out daily updates on Barbaro’s progress. Press conferences were scheduled several other times at crucial points in Barbaro’s treatment.

While their target audience was the media, the internet allowed Gail and Jennifer to communicate directly with the public as well. They created an online tool for this purpose and a Frequently Asked Questions site to answer questions and post photos. To allow for more interaction with the public, Gail and Jennifer then created a message board that allowed visitors to post comments and ask questions. The volume was huge and Gail and Jennifer had to monitor the message board regularly to make sure that accurate information was provided to the public. Hundreds of people contacted Gail and Jennifer directly to comment, ask questions or offer medical advice.

Gail and Jennifer understood how critical it was to keep other crucial audiences informed. For example, alumni were sent email updates. The team compiled news clippings, made color copies and placed them in the waiting rooms at both the large animal hospital in Kennett Square and the small animal hospital in Philadelphia. Throughout, Gail and Jennifer continued to work to increase understanding of the intricacies of veterinary medicine, to raise awareness of the Vet School’s eminence, and to educate all of our constituencies on the latest advances in equine surgery.

The magnitude of this task was truly daunting. During Barbaro’s treatment, the team received more than 1,000 media requests. Gail and Jennifer conducted more than 500 interviews with print and broadcast media, held five press conferences with his owners and jockey (as well as the governor of Pennsylvania), and orchestrated regular medical updates from Barbaro’s surgeon. The message board that was created for fans to send their good wishes to Barbaro received more than 100,000 postings by December. When Barbaro arrived, the Vet School’s website went from receiving between 500 and 1,000 visitors per day to 25,000 to 30,000 visitors per day, growing to almost one million visits for the week at the end of Barbaro’s care. The Penn Vet Message Board had more than 100,000 submissions, sometimes as many as 500 an hour in the first and final days. Even after the final press conference on January 29, 2007, announcing Barbaro’s death, Gail and Jennifer continued to reply to condolence emails, cards and letters.

The media responded so well to their efforts that many were kind enough to thank Gail and Jennifer in person, by phone or in email. But one of the high points experienced by this outstanding communications team was the gift to the Barbaro Fund of $1,000 from the National Turf Writers Association in recognition of this work with the media. Donors also responded and the School received more than 2,000 online gifts from May through December, 66 percent more than all online giving for the School in fiscal year 2006.

This outstanding effort showed extraordinary commitment to the mission of the School of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to the Vet School’s celebration of this outstanding achievement, President Amy Gutmann honored Gail and Jennifer during the 2008 Models of Excellence Award Ceremony and Reception.