Dreamworld incident: Lessons in Public Relations and Crisis Management
“The secret of crisis management is not [in the] good versus [the] bad, it is preventing the bad from getting worse.” – Andy Gilman, Comm Core Group.
On Tuesday 25th October 2016, the world learned of the tragic accident at one of the world’s renowned theme parks in Australia – the Dreamworld. The death of the four (4) loving people, on the Thunder River Rapids, will always remain deeply regrettable. Looking from the outside in, the incident did not only put the (safety and organisational culture) reputation of the organisation in jeopardy, but also affected the business’ market value in the week - with shares trading low, and the park closing out to business. Crises can cost organisations their hard earned reputation, share value, and at times financial resources through remedy and litigation.
Other matter on human resourcing, and the occupational safety and health issues notwithstanding, the lead-up to the management of the crisis in this incident, is of great importance in crisis management conversations.
The question that many may want to ask is whether the theme park operator did enough in being crisis-ready. Did the organisation have a clear blue print for crisis management? Did the initial efforts match up in deescalating the emotional situation? It was perceptible during the crisis that the organisation may have knee-jerked its initial response. We can only speculate on these questions depending on the varying schools of thought and the sentiments each of us have come into touch with.
Apparently, crisis management expert recommend the need for an organisation to issue a statement (at least) within the first 60 minutes of the crisis occurring, informing stakeholders of the challenge the organisation is facing. While this particular incident happened at 2:20pm (local time) on a Tuesday of the week, management may have taken their time to prepare and issue a statement on the same. In moments of incidents of crisis, there is always great stakeholder expectation for immediate information from an organization. We, however, can all appreciate that in moments of crisis of this nature, management undergoes the process of sense-making of the situation which may affect timing of a response - from having nothing to say to crafting something to say.
However, when the statement came, it was assuring and promising - that the operator will (with collaboration) get to the bottom of the matter to unearth the root cause of the incident. Dreamworld's statement, in part, read:
"Dreamworld is working as quickly as possible to establish the facts around the incident and is working closely with emergency authorities and police to do this.” The statement further stated that "Dreamworld's focus and priority is with the families of those involved in this tragedy and will be providing an update to the public as soon as information becomes available."
This statement not only galvanized the spirit of mourning together, but also placed the crisis victims at the core of the process of remedying and unearthing the truth. In essence, it was accompanied with a promise on the part of the operator to continuously engage the public (and the bereaved) with relevant information – a very important aspect in managing crises.
A near ugly moment, though, unfolded when Dreamworld started defending the safety record of the rafts on the Thunder River Rapids, the very rafts that had unnecessarily taken out the lives of four people in the afternoon - the rafts that, regardless of having passed the safety certification, were in this moment proven unworthy for public use. Whilst such defense may have been made in good faith, it could easily been perceived as efforts to deflect blame from the organisation and its rides, as well as unnecessarily increasing speculation on what could have happened, that was not supposed to have happened, on the raft.
Opinion will always be divided on whether it was an act of great gesture for Dreamworld to come out on the same day of the incident, offering any help for funeral arrangement to the victim’s families. One may argue that the gesture was good but the timing was bad. Here were people still trying to make sense of what had just happened – trying to absorb their tragic loss, and in some instances family members were yet to be contacted. It is tempting to sit on the fence on this as one would also argue that the initiative was all about reaching out and offering a hand at this trying moment - assuring those affected by the crisis of some relief through the grieving process. Quickly followed by the initial not-so-descriptive announcement on the re-opening of the park within a day past the incident, another would also argue that the action could have easily been construed as creating a ‘business as usual’ environment, regardless of the gravity of the incident.
In the closing days of the week, there was improvement in the handling of the crisis. The operator did a good job in bringing in the parent company into the process. When an organisation falls under close media, public and government scrutiny due to a crisis incident, leadership and a leader’s presence in moments of such uncertainty play out a critical role in addressing public relations and salvaging an organisation’s reputation. Dreamworld's leadership presence signified a renewed amount of importance and responsibility placed on the incident, and further suggested the organisation’s awareness of the possible long time consequences the crisis could have on the business, if not well managed. In essence, it is more credible and trusting when an organisation’s highest level of leadership commits in addressing crisis incidents.
Needless to say, to be more effective in crisis management, it is necessary for managers leading crises to match up words with actions. The essence of crisis communication is primarily to relieve crisis victims of any anxieties, uncertainties, and ambiguities (as well as) from further emotional and physical harm, as opposed to inflaming a situation. Whilst Dreamworld management continues being present in the crisis recovery period, they however made a statement, to the effect that all families of the victims of the incident were contacted, before the process of engaging them was fully finalised. The apparent statement could have easily created a picture that the organization was interested in covering its front at the expense of the prevailing emotions in the families. It was, however, very commendable for the organisation’s leadership to accept the shortfall and acknowledge that the situation could have been handled better.
"I'd like to say that if I hadn't handled it as well as I could, we thought we were doing the right things … but if the families are watching, I have spoken to a number of them and we will look after them. I hope this is the beginning of the healing process."
"We're all here today to be part of the family to hug each other, to provide support to each other. Everybody has been moved by this; everybody is suffering from this, and is saddened."
The fact that the statement of acknowledgement was accompanied with a sense of deep regret and a somber expression was very relevant to reaching out to bereaved families and the public.
It was equally impressing that whilst making a promise to look after the bereaved families, Dreamworld was equally present to offer emotional support to their traumatized members of staff. As much as the incident shocked the world, as a crisis, it always impacts greatly on staff membership - as, in this instance, they had the duty of care and play a role in the safety of the people in their care. They, in our crisis management planning, form part of the primary victims of crisis incidents. The ensuing safety review, the subsequent delayed re-opening (until all families mourn the deceased), and the decommissioning of the ride is the deepest gesture of respect Dreamworld could have ever done to memorise the beautiful departed souls.
In one of our write-ups on ‘Leadership and Crisis Management,’ we clearly spelt out the environmental thinking that many leaders get trapped in, and the dangers that they eventually encounter for not being crisis-ready. One of the key statements that still grab the attention states:- ‘the rarity of crisis may sway organisational leadership to believe that their organisation is less prone to a crisis event until they are facing one. Some organisations do not bother having crisis management plans in place, and look at unfolding crises as just some operational issues until the immediate damage begins to show.’
We can go on analyzing the Dreamworld crisis (strategy and response) as a case study for days, months, and years to come, but the one important thing is that a strategy can only be as good as it can get and as good as its execution.