Drive down just about any United States interstate highway and you are likely to see one of the 2,300 U-Haul 20-foot vans that have a Minnesota “SuperGraphic” highlighting a Viking ship. The display is to commemorate the Kensington Runestone (KRS) in Alexandria, Minn., and joined the ranks of other states the corporation highlights. Scholars agree that the KRS is the most famous and controversial of the 7,500 runestones found throughout the world to date, and most certainly of the 160-some reputed to be in North America.
The KRS has developed a well-known history since it was reported in 1898 discovered on the farm of Olof Ohman near the rural Minnesota town of Kensington. Over more than the last century, the stone, unlike any other runestone, has been displayed in the Smithsonian Institution, the World’s Fair, and in Sweden. Some 100 scholarly journal articles have wrestled with the authenticity of the stone, whose carvings chronicle the saga of a group of 30 Scandinavian explorers dated to 1362. Hundreds of mainstream media stories, television programs, and social media sites have followed suit.
During the rollout for the U-Haul vans in 2011, that corporation’s news release signaled why it selected the KRS to grace its vans:
“As one of North America’s greatest unsolved mysteries, the challenging enigma of the Kensington Runestone has puzzled historians for more than 110 years.”
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, U-Haul didn’t stop there. Concurrent to the truck rollout, it launched an extensive website that is intended to serve as an educational resource to school children and their teachers.
Therein lies the problem. The site is fraught with gaps in the history of the stone and carries an out-of-date translation. At the time of this blog post, it does not appear that any changes have been made to the content posted nearly a decade ago. Most significantly the website includes a definitive statement of the KRS’s authenticity on a posted timeline of 18 significant dates chronicling the lore of the stone. There is no modifier wording of “purported,” “argued,” “alleged,” or other disclaimer that journalists, and scholars, would employ to temper the exactitude of their statement.
The very first entry is this:
1362 — The stone is erected by Europeans on an expedition. The inscription was probably carved by a priest from the Swedish island of Gotland.
The late Dr. Richard Nielsen was immediately non-plussed with the site as he first read it. Dick had been a student of runestones for decades, including providing the first translation of the Heavener Runestone in Oklahoma, and in collaborating on the KRS with Dr. Henrik Williams of Uppsala University. Dick’s scholarly work was cited in the U-Haul site, without his knowledge.
As a veteran journalist, media relations specialist, former public relations university faculty instructor, and communications practitioner, I was asked to approach U-Haul corporate communications to learn if they would amend the misinformation. I contacted the U-Haul public relations department and had a welcoming conversation in response. My offer was accepted to submit Dick’s corrections to them. Troubling to me at the time, however, was a statement they made to me that they reported both the pros and cons of the KRS story, and they would leave it up to the reader to determine the truth. That is the ethical, intellectual grounding of bona fide journalists: tell both sides of the story thoroughly and accurately. However, public relations practitioners do not get to embrace journalistic tenets as a defensive bulwark without devoting due diligence to accuracy. Particularly when they are building a website that is supposed to be an educational resource for young people. That pursuit carries an even greater obligation for factual accuracy and thoughtful interpretation of their meaning.
In the following weeks, Dick prepared an extensive history of the KRS, provided the most recent interpretation, and compiled a brief empirical review of each of the more than 100 research articles, including each author’s conclusions on KRS’s authenticity.
I sent this off to U-Haul PR.
I called and emailed several times to ensure they received the information.
After many months with no apparent changes to the site and no response to my queries, I wrote to the CEO of U-Haul to express my dismay on what I considered to be a lack of professionalism in simply acknowledging the solicited information was received—not on whether it was used.
The silence remains deafening to this day.
Since its launch in 2011, as best as I can tell, there have been no updates or corrections to this website. To me, the site appears simply to be an afterthought to a rollout of the KRS trucks, with no continuing attention to the role it is portending to play as a legitimate educational resource.
Eventually, Dick’s extensive review of the KRS for U-Haul, as well as his other papers and massive holdings, will be published. They were entrusted to the American Association for Runic Studies at his passing. In 2018 AARS signed a formal agreement with the Minnesota Historical Society, which is in the process of inventorying and transferring these materials to the MHS. Eventually, you will be able to read online for yourself Dick’s even-handed review of the KRS history and journal articles for U-Haul, as of the time of that writing in 2012. Since then there have been many scholarly additions to interpreting the iconic KRS .
Unanswered, however, is how much longer U-Haul will maintain its website without meaningful updates for the benefits of teachers and students.