The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 18, 2013

Krohn: Gasp! Hermann didn't have 4-foot shoes?


The Mankato Free Press

---- — A creative attempt by the New Ulm Visitors Bureau to create a new legend of Hermann the German’s footprint was meant to drum up a little publicity.

Oh, boy did they.

Visitors Bureau Director Terry Sveine, working with a marketing firm, hired an artist to create a 4-foot-long concrete footprint. The story line they created was this: The footprint was just uncovered in a dusty box in the basement of the Chamber office with a cryptic note suggesting it could have come from Germany. Hermann is a German war hero of old whose towering statue overlooks the German city of New Ulm.

The story got some local play with the New Ulm paper and some German-American websites playing along with the gag, recounting Sveine’s story line, but with adequate tips for readers to know that the marketing ploy was just that.

I wrote about it a week ago, playing along with Sveine’s entertaining story, but with plenty of indications that the Hermann Footprint story was nothing more than a tourism stunt.

Or so I thought.

After 30 years of journalism, I know that any tongue-in-cheek feature story runs a risk. No matter how clear the between-the-lines hints may seem, some will read the story with the same expectations as they have when reading a factual, blow-by-blow city council story.

I didn’t expect one of those readers would be The Associated Press. An AP reporter picked up the story and called Sveine, who assumed the reporter wanted him to play a role and again recounted the fictitious story of finding the big footprint in the basement.

Later, the marketing firm and Sveine realized things may have been getting out of hand, as the AP was trying to verify whether Sveine’s story was really true.

Sveine clarified to AP that the footprint was simply a created stunt and that he was simply playing a role he thought he was supposed to play.

The whole amusing affair calls to mind the old saying that “any publicity is good publicity.” Thanks to the AP’s serious-minded investigative work, Hermann’s big foot has gained attention far and wide. The stories have appeared in publications across the country, giving New Ulm a big boost in its attempt at legend-making.

Maybe the footprint will take a solid foothold in folklore. It won’t be the first time they’ve been given a boost by newspapers.

The Paul Bunyan legends, told around lumberjack camps in the 1800s, got widespread and lasting attention after journalist James MacGillivray wrote a story about Paul Bunyan in 1906.

And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle popularized Sherlock Holmes through serial stories in British magazines and newspapers. Doyle’s work perhaps shows best that no matter how clear it is made that something is fictional, some won’t get it.

Recent surveys show that nearly one quarter of Brits believe Sherlock Holmes was a real detective.

Tim Krohn can be contacted at tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com or 344-6383.