Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Great Crisis Response Lessons in Action

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Great Crisis Response Lessons in Actioncrisis response

The North Carolina Zoo is renowned for wildlife exhibits and international efforts to save war torn zoos in Afghanistan and Iraq and to rescue abused polar bears in Puerto Rico. There is another zoo effort you probably don’t know.

When a chimpanzee died at the zoo, how did people learn about it? The zoo told us. When a gorilla transferring from San Francisco in 1988 died – the zoo revealed that. When two popular elephants became seriously ill in 1990 and later died the zoo issued a news release. The story’s the same for: a bison en route from the Bronx Zoo that died in 1995, troublesome beavers almost euthanized in 1997, and a 7 year old girl bitten by a rabid wild fox at the park in 1998. All negative news. All disclosed by the NC Zoo itself.

These sad occurrences are an occasional fact of life of zoos and not something they relish publicizing, but the NC Zoo has a tradition of announcing the bad and the good.

In the interest of my own full disclosure, I did some training briefly for the zoo four years ago, but it hasn’t been a client since, and in any case this tell-it-all and tell-it-now habit goes back at least 16 years. That is when former newspaper reporter Rod Hackney became the zoo’s first full-time public relations manager.

At a time when we routinely learn of tax-supported employees and institutions violating the taxpayers’ trust, and public companies doing the same to shareholders, you need look no further than the NC Zoo for a consistent model of truth-telling.

As someone who works with organizations agonizing over revealing and correcting embarrassments, let me tell you that getting fast full disclosure can be like wrestling an alligator. It’s often a hard sell. So, an organization with a tradition of unflinching transparency is a story worth telling.

I asked Rod Hackney why he does it. He said it is a matter of earning trust: of the visitors and taxpayers who support the zoo, and of the news media who give lifeblood publicity.

He gave the poignant story of the 1990 elephant deaths as an example. That summer the gentle giant Tinker fell mysteriously ill, followed shortly by the sickness of Peanut. The zoo immediately notified the public and told of intensive efforts to save them. Get well cards from children poured in while veterinarians worked – to no avail. Hackney said, “Many zoos may have come under criticism (under similar circumstances… instead) we got a sympathetic ear from the public because we were upfront about the health of the elephants. At least they knew we were doing everything possible.”

He said some zoos are concerned about releasing information that may attract criticism, but counters, “Whatever criticism you do get from revealing (a problem) is less than if you don’t reveal it.” Hackney said people at the Bronx zoo couldn’t believe it when the NC Zoo disclosed the death of the bison they were shipping, especially when NC people had never even seen the animal.

When a female gorilla newly transferred to the NC Zoo from San Francisco died before being shown to the public, again the zoo revealed the death though no one here had seen her. There was not much notice locally, but San Francisco reporters were all over the story because the gorilla had been popular there. Hackney speculated just how much bad press the NC Zoo could have gotten in San Francisco if he had sat on the story hoping no one would notice.

Rod Hackney says he does not regret a single disclosure the zoo has made and cannot think of a revelation blowing up in his face. He does, however, recall two instances where combative reporters tried to make the zoo look bad. Hackney said one did all he could to suggest that the elephant deaths were the zoo’s fault when there was no such evidence.

I asked him what he can do about journalists out to get him. Hackney said, “You must rely on the other reporters to defend you.”

The former journalist knows you only get that kind of loyalty from reporters when they have learned that you don’t hide anything from them.

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