Julia Schatz, Account Executive

Earlier this week, a story broke about 11-year-old Lexi Haas being denied entrance to the Ships of the Sea Museum in Savannah, Ga. because her wheelchair would “get the carpets dirty.”

To summarize the ridiculous and, in my opinion, appalling event, a staff member of the museum would not allow the Haas family to enter with Lexi’s wheelchair, but offered them the use of one of the museums’ wheelchairs. Due to Lexi’s condition she was unable to use the museum’s equipment because it did not have the proper supporting straps she needs. Even after this was explained, they were still denied access.

According to a Facebook post from the family, the staffer then suggested “Lexi sit outside and watch a video on a tiny TV while the rest of us walked through the exhibits.” Obviously, the family did not take them up on this offer.

Three days after the incident, the director of the museum issued an apology to the family and the staffer involved was “dismissed.” While the museum went through the motions of handling a potentially devastating PR crisis, this situation could have been avoided with a fair amount of common sense and human decency.

The museum should consider themselves lucky this story did not catch as much media attention as it could have. As our society continues moving forward toward better understanding and acceptance, especially of those with disabilities, accommodation is expected, not viewed as a privilege. Although the company claims the employee’s actions violated “the spirit of the museum’s accessibility policy,” this sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding of company policy seems to lead to a much larger problem beyond a single employee.

In interviews, the museum’s curator, Wendy Melton, claimed that Lexi’s incident was an isolated one. Those who say, “All press is good press” have never been the focus of negative media portrayal, especially on the Internet and social media. If others have had similar incidents at the museum, they have plenty of platforms to call out the curator on this statement and potentially create a chain reaction of complaints, causing a great deal of unwanted press for the museum.

In an interview with WBTV, Lexi’s mother Susan Hass said, “They really need to train their staff. They really do. It’s a significant error and significant departure in the current thinking on disability access.”

Lexi’s mother makes an important point. An oversight in staff training can lead to serious PR mishaps. When employees who deal directly with the public are not given proper direction, it can lead to glaring errors in what should be basic common courtesy. While it may be fitting that the employee was dismissed, the director is also to blame for not preemptively training the staff to know proper protocol for guests with special needs.

While museums, and any other public building, can craft as many effective marketing messages, press releases and behind-the-scenes work to establish its reputation, nothing can topple that work faster than a negative encounter between staff and the public. Actions will always speak louder than words. The lesson learned is sometimes it’s not all about the messaging since apologies such as this seem to fall flat. The work begins by making sure the staff understands that all interactions are public relations and need to behave as such.