Have you been following Dreamworld’s PR meltdown after four people were killed on one of its rides last Tuesday?
If not you should because it is a lesson for every tourism business in precisely how not to communicate with media, customers and stakeholders when something goes horribly wrong.
Here are just some of the communication mistakes made by Ardent Leisure, parent company of Dreamworld, and how you can learn from them.
- After the accident last Tuesday the company went into communication lock-down, Ardent CEO Deborah Thomas and Dreamworld CEO Craig Davidson literally hid from the media.
- Meanwhile, hundreds of people come to Dreamworld to leave flowers and tears for Kate Goodchild, her brother Luke Dorsett, his partner Roozi Araghi and New Zealand tourist Cindy Low, who were killed on the Thunder River Rapids.
- It’s a powerful juxtaposition. An outpouring of grief by the general and no-one from the organisation responsible for their deaths with the courage to answer questions.
- Dreamworld’s ill-advised response was to announce a memorial day at the park on the Friday with “proceeds” going to the Red Cross, while it hopes “other local religious leaders will attend”.
- “We hope this will be considered the start of the healing process for our staff, our community and guests”.
- Many saw this as cynical, a way of getting Dreamworld open again and the cash registers ringing. And yet the police investigation was still under way and bodies at the morgue.
- Management also foolishly decided to press ahead with Ardent’s annual general meeting on the Thursday, just two days after the accident, despite advice to cancel it.
- Of course the AGM is a disaster. Deborah Thomas is granted a $167,500 short-term cash incentive and awarded $860,000 in performance rights.
- Right or wrong, this sophisticated woman looked like a rich bitch driven by money not people. She later donated the cash bonus to charity but the moment had passed.
- The meeting was streamed live and turned into a circus when a reporter, with an open line to a victim’s family, challenged Thomas’s assertions they are speaking with grieving relatives.
- On Thursday afternoon the Dreamworld Memorial Day is finally cancelled.
- The weekend media is dominated by Dreamworld coverage and analysis. All of it is negative.
- The news cycle starts again on Monday with a story headlined ‘Dreamworld Boss Deborah Thomas’s Glamorous Life’.
- Autopsies of the Dreamworld victims are completed and their bodies returned to families ahead of the funerals, the first of which was held yesterday
- Dreamworld currently remains closed until further notice.
Meanwhile, Ardent Leisure’s share price has fallen 20%, and its reputation is shredded.
The deaths were one thing but the way management dealt with the situation through the media made it so much worse.
Of course, there is a fair chance the Dreamworld business will rebound.
History shows has been the case with other theme parks that have suffered similar accidents.
But there is no guarantee that the Dreamworld brand will ever truly recover.
It probably needs to be closed and over-hauled to wipe the slate clean and get people attending again.
So what are the lessons that tourism companies can take from this tragedy?
The first and most obvious one is that where safety is concerned make it your major priority.
You’ve also got to have a crisis management plan and all staff need to understand their roles.
Apart from operations this would also include a media strategy.
It might be as simple as identifying an media expert you can rely on and take advice from in times of stress.
Follow that advice.
It’s inconceivable that Dreamworld didn’t have a corporate strategy on how to handle an accident.
So the common wisdom is that top management went rogue.
Here are some key rules to follow:
- Have a single spokesperson with a consistent message.
- Front up and own the situation, be clear about what happened.
- If you don’t know all the facts, say so.
- Take responsibility and do not blame others.
- Show controlled empathy.
- Reach out where possible to those impacted by the crisis at hand.
- Ensure your side of the story is being heard at all times.
- Develop a stakeholder database and include in all relevant communication.
- Post all messages on your website – it is the first place people go.
In summary, be prepared and understand that while you might not like the media, they have a role to play and are last people you want to get offside.
Get it wrong and your business is at stake.