With the news that the Massachusetts State Legislature plans to restore funding for Zoo New England here in Boston, I asked Doug Haslam, Senior public relations executive at SHIFT Communications here in Boston on his thoughts about the PR fallout regarding the whole episode.
John: Doug, what do you think of the tactics used in regaining funding for the zoo?
Doug: The barometer I usually go by with clients is, “Are they telling the truth or using scare tactics?” I’m not a big fan of people using scare tactics.
In Governor Deval Patrick’s statement over the weekend, he did state that the zoo had similar problems in the early 90's, and the Stone Zoo was closed down and the animals moved to the Franklin Park Zoo for a time. But my immediate reaction to the news had been, “this is terrible”, and as I read the stories more, I started to wonder if the Zoo had exaggerated the news about euthanizing animals, and wondered if that exaggeration would come to come back to bite them.
Again my barometer would be is what people say credible? Is this really going to happen? If people come back and challenge you on this, they call your bluff, are you prepared to back up the story? The Zoo’s re-statement on who would be responsible for euthanizing the animals seemed to indicate they had not got all the facts correct initially.
I was wondering if the public was being manipulated in this story, is the story just to purely manipulate people to tell their story, if so I would not like that, but if they were really up against the wall, then its okay.
John: The zoo issued a statement last week and a clarification over the weekend. However, this week Zoo officials were not available to speak to reporters or the public. How do you think they handled communications? Was it effective?
Doug: My standard rule for clients is you have to be available, if you are not available, people often assume you are guilty, the fact the zoo had to clarify can cast doubt in people’s minds. Apparently there was supposed to be an event celebrating two new donkeys at the Zoo on the 15th, but the event was canceled. If parents were going to take their kids to the zoo for that event, I don’t think you cancel it because of the discussion about economics, you still want to do the event, otherwise this is a cases of going into hiding and goes against what we tell people to do in PR.
John: Where they successful, or not successful?
Doug: If you measure their success by restoring funding, yes, but if you measure success by long term trust with public and the state legislature, Zoo New England’s relationship with Governor Deval Patrick may come back to bite either of them down the road.
John: What do you think the parties should do next?
Doug: Great to have some public moment where the Governor and Zoo President, John Linehan, stand up in public and say they have hashed out their differences, put the incident behind them, just to clear the air, I’d recommend they do a joint press conference or joint statement together.
John: Thanks Doug, great answers, and a really good PR case study on crisis communications!