Transparency is Key: The Cincinnati Zoo's Crisis Response

by Liz Hamilton

A trending topic last week was the death of a 17-year-old endangered silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. No matter your thoughts on the situation, it can’t be argued that the Cincinnati Zoo has done an excellent job at handling the crisis currently surrounding its name and reputation.

First, the Zoo issued an immediate (same day) media update confirming the facts of the situation: on Saturday, May 28, at approximately 4 p.m., a 4-year-old boy climbed under a railing and fell 10 feet into the Gorilla World exhibit. Witnessing the gorilla (Harambe) “violently dragging and throwing the child,” a member of the Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team shot and killed the gorilla and the child was taken to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center with non-life threatening injuries.

Insert chaos on the social web. Accusations abounded and everyone (appropriately and, most of the time, inappropriately) began sharing their opinions on the subject. Three of the most popular discussions surfaced to be 1) whether the Zoo should have instead tranquilized the gorilla, 2) how the exhibit was so easily broached and 3) why the gorilla was being held in captivity in the first place.

The very next day (read: excellent crisis response), the Zoo issued another media update in which it addressed all three of these subjects it determined to be the most popular, not only showing strength in communications but also strength in monitoring (and appropriately responding to) a hot-button issue. The Zoo’s media updated indicated:

Its reasoning for not using a tranquilizer, indicating that “tranquilizers do not take effect for several minutes and the child was in imminent danger,”

Third party validation for the safety of its exhibit, acknowledging that “the exhibit is inspected regularly by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and adheres to safety guidelines,” and

Its participation as a gorilla conservationist, indicating that “there are about 765 gorillas in zoos worldwide including approximately 360 in the AZA Species Survival Program for this species. Western lowland gorillas are critically-endangered in the wild.”

Additionally, the Zoo continues to share their devastation for the incident, noting all Zoo staff is heartbroken. The very first quote from Zoo director Thane Maynard said, “We are all devastated that this tragic accident resulted in the death of a critically-endangered gorilla. This is a huge loss for the Zoo family and the gorilla population worldwide.”

As the online frenzy continued, the Zoo continued to adhere to one of the core effective crisis communication guidelines: demonstrate empathy and caring. Because of the Zoo’s true compassion for Harambe, it’s been easy for Maynard to show his genuine caring and sadness in on-camera interviews (it is also very clear that the zoo has media trained Maynard and developed a crisis response plan far in advance of this incident). But what’s more, the Zoo provided (within four days of the incident, again read: excellent crisis response) a list of different ways gorilla fans can help support gorilla conservation efforts in honor of Harambe, demonstrating its authentic commitment and dedication to the cause.

The Zoo shared each of these updates on their social media channels as a proactive measure, but it’s important to note that it did not engage in conversation here. This is a fine line in brand management, as we mostly encourage clients to participate in social chatter. However, in a crisis situation such as this one, the Zoo used its owned channels to share its messages and I agree that participating in conversation with fans online would likely have exacerbated the issue and done nothing to elevate the Zoo’s reputation.

The Zoo will reopen tomorrow, after the zoo has extensively reevaluated the exhibit and made modifications to the public barrier, according to the Zoo’s most recent media update. I’ll be curious to see the extent of the media coverage it gets, but am mostly curious to continue to see the Zoo’s great media relations efforts in the wake of such a tragedy and subsequent onslaught of negative media attention.

Liz Hamilton

Liz Hamilton

Public Relations Account Executive