Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Tiger Attack in SF – Zoo response

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Tiger Attack in SF – Zoo response Crisis response

A fatal tiger escape and attack at the San Francisco Zoo in December 2007 put a media bull’s-eye on the zoo.  Although a witness said the tiger was taunted and the zoo is making safety improvements, the animal did get out, someone died, and harsh headlines followed including “S.F. Zoo’s History of Mismanagement; Morale Down Under New Director.”

The North Carolina Zoo prefers not to question the tiger attack crisis response some have criticized.  The zoo community is close-knit and institutions share expertise and animals.

No matter how the facts unfold in San Francisco I know this about the NC Zoo. A similar tragedy, God forbid, would trigger a direct, forceful and transparent response.   For 20 years it’s been tell it all and tell it now, good or bad.

When a chimpanzee died in 2003, the zoo revealed it. The same happened when a gorilla transferring from San Francisco died in 1988.  When two popular elephants became ill in 1990 and died the zoo issued news releases.  Ditto when a bison en route from the Bronx Zoo died in 1995.  Tellingly, the NC Zoo announced that a 7 year old girl was bitten by a rabid wild fox at the park in 1998.  All negative news and all disclosed by the zoo itself.

I noticed this transparency five years ago and wrote, “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.”

Longtime zoo public relations manager Rod Hackney said it is a matter of earning the trust of visitors, taxpayers who fund the zoo, and news media who give lifeblood publicity.

He told me in 2003 that some zoos worry about releasing information that may attract criticism.  He countered, “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 visitors had never seen the animal. Likewise the public was told of the death of the newly transferred female gorilla from San Francisco though she’d never been seen by visitors.  Although there wasn’t much local notice, San Francisco reporters were all over it because the gorilla had been popular.  Hackney wondered just how much bad press the NC Zoo could have gotten in San Francisco had he sat on the story hoping no one would notice.

A former newspaper reporter himself, Rod Hackney knows you only get loyalty from reporters when they believe you don’t hide anything from them.  He says he does not regret a single disclosure, no revelations have backfired, and even if one journalist misreports an incident, others tend to correct it.  Remarkable.

I hope the S.F. Zoo consults its N.C. Zoo friends as it weathers the tiger attack storm.

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