When you mix wild animals and people, occasionally, accidents will happen. That’s a fact of life in the zoo business. Most professional companies have myriad safeguards in place to limit the potential of these incidents happening. Still, no system is perfect, so sometimes a brand finds itself in a position similar to the Shanghai Zoo.
In this case, though, not only did something awful happen, it happened in front of visitors with camera phones, making the whole incident that much worse and the need for a precise Public Relationsresponse that much more vital.
You may have already read the story, or at least the headline: Shanghai zoo fatal bear attack filmed by visitors. According to media reports, a bus full of tourists was riding through the park when bears attacked a park employee. Some of the panicking tourists started screaming, while others started filming. Soon, the video made its way onto social media, and the story went global.
In a public statement about the incident, the park said it was investigating the events that led up to the tragedy, adding, “(We are) extremely distressed that such a tragedy occurred… (We) apologize to anyone for any inconvenience…”
In addition to the apology, park officials said that the “wild beast area” was “temporarily closed” and that unused tickets would be refunded while the park “strengthens safety operations.”
Once word of the incident landed on social media, the problem grew exponentially. The commentary started with shock and sympathy but quickly escalated into a war of words about the incident and the existence of zoos in general. Suddenly, facilities on different continents completely unrelated to the incident in Shanghai were being challenged by critics who believe “all zoos should be closed.”
It doesn’t take much to trigger some responses on social media, but incidents such as this can create movements that have a lasting impact on entire industries. While the central thrust of the conversation was about the horrible incident and the zoo’s safety measures, the periphery of the international dialogue continued to be about zoos as a business model. Activists activated and tried to shift the conversation to suit their goals.
Soon, there were lists of “similar incidents” being compiled, and these lists were being added to articles about the original event and posted as updates. That caused the whole cycle to snowball, as people digested the lists of workers and, in some cases, guests, being injured at wildlife parks and zoos. Then came the pushback on that narrative, and the conversation escalated once again.
Meanwhile, the zoo and wildlife park industry, already struggling due to COVID restrictions, was suddenly faced with a new wave of criticism, something they will have to account for in their communication going forward.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR.
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