Published on July 13, 2017, at 2:45 p.m.
by Elizabeth Selmarten.
On May 28, 2016, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s livelihood was turned upside down after shooting and killing a critically endangered western lowland gorilla to save a boy who had climbed into the gorilla habitat. The death of Harambe the gorilla became an international sensation, sparking memes and death threats directed at the zoo. Over a year later, the zoo has overcome the situation and has provided a crisis management model that PR practitioners can learn from.
Immediately following the situation came the catalyst for Internet scrutiny: a video recording taken by a visitor was published on social media just as the zoo released a statement on the incident. While the Cincinnati Zoo was swift to release a press release both the day of the incident and the following day, it did not alleviate what was coming. Regardless what the zoo officials said and did, once the video went viral, it sparked an international phenomenon and controversy.
“It was very unfortunate because I think the zoo got a very bad rep with all that. Nobody wants to see an animal shot or killed in that kind of situation especially,” said Aaron Jordan, The University of Alabama Men’s Basketball sports information director.
Jordan, a Cincinnati native whose mother used to work at the Cincinnati Zoo, said that “the zoo has done more for the good of animals than any place I’ve ever been around. I think when you look at the situation with Harambe, I’m sure they went through every option they could.”
Although the Harambe incident occurred within the U.S., it rapidly became recognized as an international crisis. Conversations surrounding the parents of the child who went into the captivity evolved into a wave of memes, gifs and tributes that flooded both social media and pop culture. For the entire summer of 2016, it was evident that the memes were not going to stop. Nobody could escape the story of Harambe.
Not even other zoos could ignore the Harambe incident. Zoos across the nation, including the Houston Zoo, had to release statements commenting on what happened. Houston Zoo Executive Vice President David Brady talked to ABC13 and said, “any zoo looks at incidents like this, thinks about could that happen here, what our response would be and take that opportunity to learn from other things that could happen.”
Collin Burwinkle, a former public relations intern who worked at the Houston Zoo during the summer of 2016, echoed what his superior said.
“Anytime something happens in the industry, I review the processes and procedures that were used in order to further learn about what went well and what could be improved upon,” Burwinkle said.
At first, the Cincinnati Zoo tried to ignore the external chatter for the most part, outside of zoo director Thane Maynard writing an open letter on June 16, 2016, thanking the local community for support, remembering Harambe and reaffirming the zoo’s commitment to conservation. In mid-August, things took a turn for the worse. Maynard’s Twitter account was hacked the day after the zoo pleaded for people to stop the Harambe memes. This incident served as the catalyst for the following drastic actions that the zoo took.
The Cincinnati Zoo did what many, such as PR Daily, thought was PR suicide: It deactivated its Twitter account and went on nearly a two-month hiatus.
“So for them [the zoo] to delete their Twitter and hide from it, I think that’s the total wrong way to do it,” Jordan said. “That stuff is not going away: the memes, the gifs, the nasty responses to everything they tweet out, that’s always going to be there. They should’ve been upfront about it.”
By deleting its account, it took away the direct target, its account handle, from being used. While one could argue that it helped lessen the onslaught of Harambe-isms in the long run, it actually brought about a fresh set of headlines for the zoo and more skepticism from critics.
“We always talk to our [basketball] players every year, and I tell always them that one of the worst things you can do is not comment,” Jordan said. “If someone asks you ‘are you on steroids,’ if you’re not, why would you say no comment? It’s insinuating that you’re hiding something. Hiding from it makes you look guilty; it makes you look like you did something wrong.”
A few months after its return to Twitter, the zoo delivered an opportunity to shift the focus of Harambe in the form of a premature baby hippopotamus named Fiona.
“The Fiona thing was a blessing in disguise for them [the Cincinnati Zoo],” Jordan said. “That’s the direction they need to go in.”
The zoo quickly drew national attention by constantly keeping followers up to date on Fiona’s story by posting videos, pictures and more daily on multiple platforms. It actively pushed the Fiona story, which helped it overcome the Harambe backlash. A year later, the zoo’s publics are positively engaging with the zoo again and have stopped posting Harambe memes to their social media accounts.
While the repercussions of the Harambe incident will continue to haunt the zoo, it’s important for the organization to change the narrative and redirect the attention toward messages that align with its mission statement of “creating adventure, conveying knowledge, conserving nature, and serving the community.”
“Every time there’s an update on Fiona, I’m reading the comments and people are still making nasty comments but you’re going to get that regardless of whatever the situation,” Jordan said. “We [UA Athletics Communications] get that all the time; they’re [the zoo] going to get it all the time.”
PR practitioners can take a note on how even though the situation seemed overwhelming and never-ending, the zoo saw how what it had been doing wasn’t working, took action to manage the crisis and then shifted the focus onto an opportunity that had risen: Fiona the premature hippo.
So when your client is the center of a global controversy that refuses to let up, what exactly does one do?
“You always have to have a plan in place, and continuously go over it in order to prepare for events such as this one,” Burwinkle said.
In addition to a crisis management plan, it’s important to conduct a strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities (SWOT) analysis on a regular basis to ensure that every area of the plan is secure. Overall, the zoo’s use of the SWOT analysis helped repair its negative image after the Harambe incident.