7 Steps Zoo used to Mitigate Crisis

Written by Steve Piacente

May 31, 2016

A child falls 15 feet into the moat of a zoo’s gorilla exhibit. Onlookers, including the boy’s mother, look on horrified as a 450-pound silverback grabs the child and begins dragging him through the water. The zoo makes a quick decision: kill the gorilla to save the boy.

Considerable outrage followed the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s decision to shoot 17-year-old gorilla Harambe. Why wasn’t there another way? Why kill the gorilla for something that wasn’t his fault? Zoo Director Thane Maynard’s response – to reporters and via social media – offer instructive lessons on how to act in a digital age crisis scenario.

Here are seven steps the zoo took to keep a bad situation from getting worse:

1. Officials were clear, concise and fast. Maynard did not waver, telling the press soon after the incident, “That child’s life was in danger. People who question that don’t understand you can’t take a risk with a silverback gorilla … Looking back, we’d make the same decision. The child is safe.”

2. The zoo anticipated the hard questions and provided detailed answers. A step-by-step explanation on Facebook made clear that the first response was to call the gorillas out of the exhibit. Two went, but not Harambe. Tranquilizers were risky because they take too long and the boy was in immediate danger. Plus, a dart was likely to rile up the gorilla.

3. The communications team used social media to get the story out from the zoo’s point of view. Two tweets pointed to “details on sad incident at Cincinnati Zoo,” and noted the zoo community was “devastated by death of beloved gorilla.”

4. Understanding that people needed to vent, officials permitted posts on its own Facebook page that were extremely critical of the zoo. Said one, “Boycott Cincinnati Zoo for this ridiculous slaughter of this majestic animal.”

5. Maynard remained calm and refused to cast blame as many on social media were faulting the mother for not being more careful. “I’m not a big finger pointer,” Maynard said. “Politicians and pundits point fingers.”

6. The zoo also provided important context and perspective. Its “Gorilla World” is nearly four decades old, and this was the first breach. The exhibit is inspected regularly by the appropriate agencies, and adheres to all safety guidelines.

7. And seventh, the zoo made sure to reinforce its core message. Said Maynard, “The safety of our visitors and our animals is our number one priority. The barrier that we have in place has been effective for 38 years.”

The failure to acknowledge that improvements are nonetheless possible would have been a grievous error. But Maynard didn’t fall into the trap, promising careful study “as we work toward continuous improvement for the safety of our visitors and animals.”

Did you spot anything else the zoo did right or wrong in its communication strategy?