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RISK MANAGEMENT

Boh Bros. avoids a flood of negative publicity

The day before Thanksgiving in 2005, it looked like Boh Bros. Construction Co. L.L.C.'s reputation was on the line.

The 98-year-old construction company, which previously had been praised for the work it had done to help save New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck, was now the subject of 15 class action lawsuits claiming that the company was at least partially responsible for the breach of 17th Street canal.

The breach, which had caused devastating flooding in the city's Lakeview area, had been made possible because Boh Bros., which had built the canal wall 14 years earlier, had driven in steel sheeting for the wall that was 71/2 feet shorter than specified, according to an engineering expert investigating the breach.

When news of the expert's opinion got to Warren C. Perkins Jr., he realized that it was only a matter of time before the allegation would become widespread public knowledge and his company's reputation would be severely damaged.

Mr. Perkins, vp, risk manager at Boh Co. L.L.C., the administrative management arm of the construction firm, remembered that Boh Bros.' liability coverage from American International Group Inc. included crisis management coverage. So at 3 p.m. he called AIG and set the wheels in motion.

"I was very impressed. I got home about 6 p.m., and when I got there a guy from AIG called and wanted to know what the deal was," he said.

AIG then immediately contacted Hill & Knowlton Inc., an international public relations consultancy, which also contacted Mr. Perkins. "I went through it again with them, so then on Friday we were full blown into it," Mr. Perkins said.

Hill & Knowlton agreed to bring in a local independent public relations consultant, Ann Barks, who set to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—which commissioned Boh Bros. to build the canal wall—and its communications team to produce a "media event" at the site of the breach.

As part of the preparation for the event, Hill & Knowlton flew in a media training expert to give a crash course in dealing with the media to Robert S. Boh, president of Boh Bros., and Mr. Perkins.

When everybody was ready, the team invited a slew of journalists and other interested parties to the site.

"We pulled the sheeting on camera with everybody watching and measured it, took a picture and put it on the ground, pulled another piece of sheeting and another one and every one of them were the length that was specified in the design," Mr. Perkins said.

The media and plaintiffs' lawyers who had gathered to watch dispersed and the allegation that Boh Bros. had neglected to fulfill its contractual duties in building the wall failed to make the headlines.

Later studies of the canal wall determined that the original specifications were insufficient.

"We did what we were told to do, but they should have designed sheeting that was longer," he said.

Earlier this year, a judge ruled that the original 15 suits were time barred, and Boh Bros. is confident that a further 19 suits will be similarly dismissed, Mr. Perkins said. "We are constantly dealing with this issue."

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